In Western societies, disposing of a dead body has come down to two choices: there’s burial, and there’s cremation. Occasionally, a corpse is donated to science, but even those remains usually make their way to the crematorium in the end.
But since climate change has piqued the world’s environmental awareness, it has become clear that death, despite being the most natural of processes, is bad for the environment. Coffins, most of which are made from nonbiodegradable chipboard, take up valuable land space. Even when coffins are biodegradable, embalming liquid, which often contains carcinogenic formaldehyde, can leak into the soil. Cremation, during which remains are burned at 1,562F , comes with its own problems. According to the research of University of Melbourne professor Roger Short, the process can create up to 350 lb. of greenhouse gases per corpse, including the remains of the coffin.
In Australia, one company recently started selling a greener alternative. Aquamation Industries claims to offer a unique, cheaper, more carbon-neutral method of body disposal. Aquamation employs a process called alkaline hydrolysis, in which a body is placed in a stainless-steel vat containing a 200F potassium-hydroxide-and-water solution for four hours until all that remains is the skeleton. The bones, which are soft at that point, are then crushed and presented to the deceased’s family. The residual liquid contains no DNA, and the procedure uses only 5% to 10% of the energy that cremation uses, says John Humphries, a former funeral-home director who is now the chief executive of Aquamation Industries, which launched its services in August. According to Humphries, Aquamation accelerates the processes that occur in nature. Even the residual liquid can be recycled: Humphries measures the pH after the procedure is completed, and if it’s deemed too high in alkalinity, he adds vinegar or citric acid to it afterward. By that time, he says, it’s safe enough to pour on the rose bushes.
David Brynn Hibbert, a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of New South Wales, has a different interpretation of the process. “Potassium hydroxide is similar to the stuff you use to clean the oven. It has that soapy feel that strips your fingerprints if you accidentally get it on your hands. If you can imagine the way that it dissolves leftover cooking fats, well, the solution does the same thing with a human body.” Hibbert adds that the remaining liquid would have to be neutralized to be poured over living plants. “It might be too high in alkalinity initially, but the right amount of vinegar or citric acid would correct that.”
At present, the only functioning aquamation unit is at Eco Memorial Park on Australia’s Gold Coast, a tourist hot spot that seems an unusual destination for an innovative death industry. Humphries says 15 more Aquamation units have been sold to funeral homes around Australia and will be operational within the next nine months. He says more than 60 people have already paid to be aquamated, and he has been flooded with phone calls since an article about the procedure appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. In a poll appearing alongside the article, 68% of the 2,065 surveyed said they would consider being aquamated.