A few years ago, when the internet was just starting to gain steam, B2B was an acronym for Business to Business, companies that would trade directly with each other through the new technology on the internet. I recently came across an article where B2B was explaining the common thread among the three ways of carrying out the final disposition of your body. Now it stands for Body to Bones.
We have the traditional burial method where the body decomposes slowly. After about 25 years you have the bones remaining. About 130 years ago in this country, the process of cremation was introduced which uses fire, fuel and oxygen to quickly reduce the body to bones in about 3 hours. And now in the past few years, there is a company that has developed a new process called alkaline hydrolysis that uses water, alkali, heat, and pressure to reduce the body to bones in about the same amount of time.
Why is it important to keep developing new ways to perform this very necessary ritual? It is important because we want to find more dignified, less costly, and more efficient ways to have funerals. Climbing in importance is the need to be environmentally friendly, even in death, as we do our funeral planning.
Just look at some of the facts. There are over 7 billion people in the world right now and the population is still growing. In England, an island country, there are over 700,000 people a year that are dying. Land is getting scarce in many countries of the world and when you bury someone in a cemetery, you tie up the land for the foreseeable future.
It was a big culture shift in this country when cremation was introduced as an alternative to traditional burials. Even up until 1980, only 4% of the people in this nation were choosing to be cremated. That figure is now about 35-40% nationwide and is expected to grow to 60% within the next 15 years.
Many people think that compared to traditional funerals, cremation is a good way to have a green burial. After all, you do not need to have a casket. You do not need to be embalmed. If you are scattering your ashes, you do not need to have a cemetery plot which ties up the land for years to come and uses resources to water and fertilize the lawns forever. But the cremation process in this country alone uses enough fossil fuels to drive a car to the moon and back 84 times – every year. Worldwide, the cremation process is responsible for releasing 2% of the toxins into the air. In England, it is estimated that 16% of the mercury emissions are coming from the cremation process breaking down the dental work that people carried with them into the chamber.
So, what is this new alternative described as alkaline hydrolysis. It sounds like a chemistry experiment. I also heard it described as a chemical bath, acid bath, or lye bath. These terms are not very appealing and I can see how the parallels between cremation are drawn as it first came on the scene and was described as burning the body.
One of the things that I have learned about reading the news is that both the politicians and the news industry survive on fear. It is what gets people elected and it is what sells newspapers or makes people watch the television. One of the first reports that I saw had a story line of “New process will flush Dad down the toilet” and another was about “Is your drinking water still safe?”
Alkaline hydrolysis is not some scary chemical process. In some ways, it is already responsible for the breakdown of bodies when they are buried naturally in the ground. It is also the process that breaks down the food inside of our intestines. Alkaline is not acidic. It is at the opposite end of the PH spectrum, meaning that it is basic.
The new marketing term for this process is bio cremation. The machine, called a resomator, has been developed by a company in Scotland. They shipped their first commercially available machine to the United States and it was used in Florida this year. It is a big stainless steel cylinder. The body gets placed on a tray and inserted into the chamber. It fills with water and about 5 gallons of potassium hydroxide (KOH). The cabin is then pressurized and the liquid heated to about 350 degrees. The pressure keeps the liquid from boiling and speeds up the process. At the end of the cycle, the water is dumped down the drain to be processed with the rest of the waste water in the city, the metals are removed, and the bones are pulverized and returned to the family in an urn, very similar to cremation.
The process is going to be licensed and regulated. It will probably be operated by the same people that do cremations now. It had to be licensed in Florida to return the water to the waste treatment center. It has to maintain a PH lever of 10.5-11.5 or less and that will depend on the local ordinances. Up until a few months ago, this process was legal in two states, New Hampshire and Minnesota. It was being performed by two medical facilities, Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida. But with the shipment of the first resomator to Florida, the funeral home has now performed at least 20 bio cremations as of December 2011. It is now legal in 8 states and legislation is pending or proposed in 17 more.
I think that it is a little early to talk about the cost of cremation versus the cost of bio cremation because the market has not had a chance to work yet. The talk is that it should not be any more expensive. The process uses 8 times less energy and emits no mercury or toxins into the atmosphere. It should help ease the pressure for additional burial space in many countries.
In 2010, the company that developed this machine received the Observer Ethical Award for “Big Ideas”. I think that if the industry handles this correctly, the Baby Boom generation might be the next to embrace this as a very environmentally friendly alternative as they are preparing to die.