The eco-friendly future of death is dissolving cadavers and flushing the remains

There have been weirder trends.
There have been weirder trends.
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux
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Dissolving corpses sounds like a technique for Breaking Bad gangsters—not dearly departed loved ones. Yet the technique is gaining favor as a green alternative to traditional burial or cremation, with a small town in Canada leading the way.

Alkaline hydrolysis goes by many names, including the brochure-friendly bio-cremation, liquid cremation, flameless cremation, and aquamation. For 40 years, it has been used to dispose of animals, as well as human cadavers used in medical research. In the last decade, however, the process has been legalized for regular humans in nearly a dozen US states and three Canadian provinces. In Smiths Falls, a small town southwest of Ottawa, Aquagreen Dispositions began offering the option a year ago, and it has completed nearly 200 operations.

“It brings your body back to its natural state,” Aquagreen Dispositions owner Dale Hilton told the CBC this week. “It’s the same way as being buried in the ground, but instead of taking 15, 20 years to disintegrate, it does it in a quicker process.”

Here’s how it works, and fair warning—it’s gross.

A body is placed into a pressurized 400 gallon drum with a solution of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The container is heated to 350℉ (175℃) and its contents recirculated for about three hours, which reduces the flesh and organs to liquid and bone. The liquid—a coffee-colored substance that smells like ammonium—gets filtered a few times before being sent down the drain to regular sewage treatment plants. What remains of the bones are dried in a convection oven, pressed into powder and returned to loved ones.

Proponents say that alkaline hydrolysis, which releases about 50 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is far more ecologically friendly than cremation, which releases 250 kg.

“It’s actually supposed to be a greener type of cremation in that it uses less fossil fuels and causes less emissions,” said Caitlin Doughty, a mortician who demonstrated the process on her blog using a miniature hydrolysis machine made out of an Absolut bottle. “Natural burial [without a traditional coffin] is like a bike, alkaline hydrolysis is like a Prius, cremation is like a Ford and traditional burial is like a Hummer.”

Since 2009, 10 US states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon and Wyoming—have legalized alkaline hydrolysis, though less than half of them actually have facilities that offer it. A 2006 bill legalizing the process in New Hampshire was repealed before any facility opened. A similar bill in Ohio was tabled in 2011 over opposition from the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which said that “dissolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resultant liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.” (To be fair, the human byproducts generated by the embalming process are also sent down the drain.)

Outside of regulations and squeamishness, the biggest obstacle is cost. The $3,000 price tag for consumers is on par with that of a regular cremation, but the upfront cost for funeral homes is high. A hydrolysis machine, plus installation, can run upwards of $400,000. That means a preponderance of consumers will have to start demanding the dissolve option for it to truly catch on.

There’s precedent for such a sea change, though: Over the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans opting for traditional cremations nearly doubled, to 46.7% in 2014, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That shift, coupled with a newer emphasis on environmentally friendly body disposal (see: human composting, mushroom burial suits, biodegradable freeze-drying) suggests that future Americans will have no problem with their bodies slipping down the drain.