Every year, it is estimated that cremations in the United States release as much CO2 as operating 70,000 cars. The interment of embalmed bodies results in an estimated 800 gallons of formaldehyde being buried in the earth. The desire to reduce our carbon footprint and reflect environmentally conscious values after death has resulted in a search for alternative methods of handling our remains. Below, we will look at the science behind one of those alternatives – aquamation – and discuss its environmental impacts.
Aquamation (also known by its scientific name – alkaline hydrolysis) uses temperature, pressure and a solution of water and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide to break down the body’s tissues. The tissues are turned into a liquid referred to as effluent. Like flame cremation, aquamation leaves behind bone fragments which are processed into remains and returned to the family. Unlike flame cremation, aquamation does not rely on fossil fuels or release gases into the atmosphere (including CO2, and mercury (from fillings)). The leftover liquid effluent is primarily comprised of salts, sugars, peptides and amino acids and is disposed of through the regular sewage system.
Aquamation doesn’t use fossil fuels and I will still receive my loved one’s remains– why isn’t it more common?
Aquamation is new and only offered by 4 providers in Ontario. Although it was patented for use on animals in the 1880s, aquamation has only recently approved for use in Ontario and is only legal in three provinces.
Studies from the Netherlands suggest that aquamation has a much smaller environmental impact than alternative methods of disposition. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) recognize high-temperature alkaline hydrolysis as a way to dispose of human remains without endangering public health.
That said, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) has not approved marketing of aquamation as an “environmentally friendly alternative” to cremation or other methods of disposition. The release of effluent into the sewer system is being monitored by municipalities in Ontario to ensure that aquamation providers are only generating innocuous effluent that will not damage the environment if released at scale. The BAO does not have concerns about the safety of high temperature aquamation, but is taking a cautious approach to broad environmental claims about a process that is still fairly new in Ontario.
Low temperature aquamation machines operate at approximately 95C degrees and process a body in approximately 14-16 hours. High temperature machines operate at approximately 160C degrees for approximately 4-6 hours.
Practically speaking, the difference between high temperature and low temperature aquamation is irrelevant in Ontario because all service providers in Ontario use exclusively high temperature aquamation. However, as a point of interest for those looking to delve into the finer points of aquamation regulation, the dispute is outlined below.
In 2018, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) revoked the licence of an aquamation provider because of his use of low temperature aquamation machines. The BAO was concerned that lower temperature aquamation machines may not be a safe method of disposal because they may fail to kill prions (proteins that can transmit neurodegenerative diseases, such as the rare and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – a human version of mad-cow disease). High temperature aquamation, by contrast, did not pose any such concerns for the BAO because of a solid body of research deeming it safe, including the research by the WHO and CDC mentioned above.
The aquamation provider appealed the decision to suspend his license to the License Appeal Tribunal. The Tribunal sided with the aquamation provider, as did the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal. In its reasons, the Court of Appeal agreed with the lower courts that the onus was on the BAO to “establish reasonable grounds to believe there was a risk to the public health and safety” and not on the aquamation provider "to prove that the operation was safe".
At the time of publication, the BAO may still opt to appeal the decision, but the point is moot. All four aquamation providers in Ontario, including Newcastle Funeral Home Ltd, now use high temperature aquamation. No low temperature aquamation providers are currently licensed to operate in Ontario.
There is no right answer. Choosing how to handle remains is an incredibly personal process and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution that is best for everyone. Here are a couple of questions to consider when deciding whether to pick aquamation for environmental reasons:
Whatever you decide, make sure you communicate your wishes to your family. Having that conversation can make the process of handling your remains a lot easier, particularly if you have chosen a less traditional option like aquamation.