Aquamation: An Eco-friendly Alternative to Cremation

Cremation is one of the most popular ways to process human remains. In the UK in 2021, cremation accounted for around 75% of all funerals. But there are some people that aren’t too fond of the eco credentials of this all too common funeral practice.

Cremation is the process of heating the body until the organic matter is vaporised and the bones are broken down. The ashes are then cooled, metal components are removed with a magnet, and then the remains are ground up and returned to the family.

It is a highly popular way to process human remains, but some are worried about the environmental impact. Cremation uses fossil fuels to power the process and also emits an array of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Those looking for a more eco-friendly option might be curious to learn about aquamation.

What is aquamation?

Aquamation is a process that uses water to process human remains rather than fire. By switching to aquamation, this could cut crematorium greenhouse gas emissions by around 35%.

Aquamation is also known as alkaline hydrolysis. The body is placed in a mixture of water and a strong alkaline such as potassium hydroxide. This is heated to around 150°C in a sealed container for around 3-4 hours.

This process liquified everything but the bones, which are then dried in an oven, ground up and returned to the family in place of the usual cremation ashes. This process is only authorised in certain countries and certainly isn’t widespread just yet.

Famous cases of aquamation

Famous cases of aquamation

Perhaps the most famous request for aquamation came from the anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 90. He was known for living a frugal life and requested a low-key funeral, including this eco-friendly alternative to cremation. 

In densely populated areas where there is limited space for burial and air quality is of greater concern, this could be an effective way to deal with human remains without producing the same volume of greenhouse gases. 

History of aquamation

The method was first developed in the early 1990s as a way to dispose of animals used in experiments and it was later the method of choice for getting rid of animals affected by the mad cow disease epidemic.

Medical schools in the United States have also used this method to dispose of medical cadavers in a respectful way. It is also commonly used to dispose of carcases in slaughterhouses, as this is thought to be a more hygienic and efficient way to dispose of animals than by burning or burying. 

Is aquamation legal in the UK?

Aquamation is currently legal in the UK, provided all of the relevant guidelines and environmental regulations are followed. However, there are currently no crematoriums offering this type of service. There are plans to open one in the Midlands, and there is currently one company operating in the UK that supplies the equipment required to offer this type of service.

Aquamation is currently available in some parts of the United States and in Canada, but the practice isn’t widespread or well-known everywhere. It could be some time before we start to see aquamation funerals become the norm.

Benefits of aquamation

Benefits of aquamation

Supporters of this alternative to cremation are keen to point out the impact cremation has on the environment. Water cremation is thought to be a gentler practice that is growing in popularity with those searching for an eco-friendly way to deal with human remains. Here are some of the benefits of aquamation:

  • It releases fewer greenhouse gases than cremation and also uses less fossil fuels.
  • There are no airborne particles released during the aquamation process. During cremation, even something as small as a dental filling can release harmful mercury.
  • The process is gentler and quieter than cremation, which can feel quite traumatic and violent for loved ones.
  • The process is very quick and the body will soon return to its basic organic elements. 
  • Families will still receive ashes to keep, bury or scatter. This is from the bones which are dried and then ground into a fine powder.
  • There is no need to remove things like large joint replacements or pacemakers before the aquamation, as there is no danger of these exploding.
  • Some people are afraid of fire, and this can make the cremation process traumatic for their loved ones.
  • The remaining liquid is safe and sterile and can be recycled. No DNA or RNA remains in the water.
  • The aquamation process uses less water than a single household would use in one day, so it offers a very low environmental impact. 

Disadvantages of aquamation

Disadvantages of aquamation

While it might offer some clear advantages, there will be a few hurdles to overcome before this practice can become more widespread. These include:

  • The process might be considered offensive to some. The leftover liquid is a green-brown solution that is essentially liquified organs, blood and tissue. The thought that this could be going back into the water system or being used for fertiliser might leave some residents close to aquamation centres upset or angry.
  • The costs of setting up an aquamation facility are very high, which could prevent this from becoming more widespread. The potential environmental benefits might not be enough to drive demand for this type of service.
  • The costs will be the same as cremation, which could deter families from choosing this option, particularly if cremation is more widely available and easy to access. 

What do religions say about aquamation?

As this process is relatively new, it’s difficult to say with certainty if these processes are allowed. In general, if a religious group permits cremation, there is a good chance that aquamation will be permitted. 

Burial is the preferred choice in Islam, Judaism and Catholicism. This is because of the rituals that will take place before burial and the way the body is handled with respect. It’s difficult to see how aquamation could deliver the same level of respect for the body.

It is thought that Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism will all be accepting of aquamation once it becomes more standard practice around the world. This is simply because these groups welcome cremation, and aquamation is simply a variation of this service.