Water Cremation: Environmentally Friendly and Probably Cheaper

After the alkaline hydrolysis process is completed, the bone remains will be collected from the stainless steel basket from inside the alkaline hydrolysis machine.
After the alkaline hydrolysis process is completed, the bone remains will be collected from the stainless steel basket from inside the alkaline hydrolysis machine.
Eric Neuhaus feels for the families who call his funeral home requesting information about a new form of death care — alkaline hydrolysis aka water cremation – only to find out that it is illegal in Texas, forcing many to choose other options they may not want for their deceased loved ones.

Alkaline hydrolysis is the process of breaking down human remains using water and alkaline chemicals to rapidly accelerate the natural decomposition process and results in bone mineral ash, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Besides being an environmentally friendly choice, funeral home operators who offer water cremation say the costs are significantly lower than a casket burial and Green Burial in which a body is not embalmed and buried in a biodegradable holding – casket, urn or pod.
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There are several types of biodegradable caskets that are used during Green or natural burials, including cardboard caskets or woven wicker basket caskets.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Neuhaus who founded Green Cremation Texas in 2018 and other funeral home operators are challenging the legality of a ban on this disposition method in the Texas Legislature.

Similar legislation was introduced in past sessions but did not make it past the committee stage, said Neuhaus – whose funeral home in Austin provides alternative ways to dispose of human remains. These options include water cremation, green or natural burial, and natural organic reduction – the process of decomposing the body to make soil.

Neuhaus said that the public’s interest and support of alkaline hydrolysis appears to be increasing, as his funeral home receives many requests from families wanting these services.

According to Jon Hughes, co-owner of Hughes Funeral Alternatives in St. Louis, Missouri, alkaline hydrolysis – also referred to as water cremation, aquamation or resomation – is the process of breaking down human remains using water and alkaline chemicals to produce bone and mineral ash.

The level of alkalinity involved in the process varies depending on the individuals’ age, gender, weight and race. These chemicals are then placed into an aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis machine – a stainless steel vessel – where the remains are also put in a stainless-steel basket inside.

Hughes’s funeral home uses a low-pressure alkaline hydrolysis unit, which does not go above 208 degrees and takes around six to 10 hours, depending on the individual, to decompose the body, he says.

This process mimics what occurs in natural decomposition, just at a faster rate, he says.

“In my mind, water cremation is closer to burial than it is to flame cremation,” Hughes said. “If you bury somebody in the cemetery, whether they are in a casket or a vault, the soil is going to make its way to that individual and naturally break down our body over a period of years, but this speeds it up.”

The water, alkaline and temperature that the machine reaches work together to break down the “soft remains” of the human body, resulting in only bone mineral and the liquid collected in the process, Hughes said.

The only exception to this is if the individual had any artificial elements in their body at the time of their death, including artificial joints, pacemakers and silicon body parts.

“Sometimes, these families will want those objects back to keep,” Hughes said. “We want to accommodate the loved ones however we can, so if that is the case, we will return them looking good as new.”

Because these artificial elements are completely cleansed during the process; Hughes said they are also able to recycle them through a medical waste service, where they may be able to be used again.

The bone mineral remains that are left over are broken down into ashes and then given to the family or friends of the deceased. The recipients can then decide if they want to scatter the ashes, display them in a classic or biodegradable urn, bury them in a plot or use another eco-friendly burial method like a tree pod.

A tree pod is a pod-like container or urn which will hold the ashes of a loved one. After this pod is buried, with the human remains inside, there is a tree planted above. As time passes, the pod will biodegrade, allowing the ashes to be released and fertilize the tree’s soil.

Hughes’s funeral home on average does around 250 water cremations a year and services some of the Texas families that contact Neuhaus and are willing to travel to the St. Louis facility.

Houston funeral home director Joseph Earthman said there are many benefits to families that choose water cremation including decreased energy consumption and exposure to toxic chemicals, affordability and providing a more conscious method of disposition.

Water cremation may be cost effective for families that choose it when compared to a standard burial, flame cremation or even a natural burial – contingent on additional costs or service packages that might be purchased.

According to Hughes, their funeral home’s average water cremation costs $1,400, which is significantly less when compared to the average standard burial that can range from $10,000 to $15,000.

Their funeral home’s average water cremation costs $1,400, which is significantly less when compared to the average standard burial that can range from $10,000 to $15,000.

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The average cost for flame cremation may start at $1,000 but tends to go up to $3,000 and a green burial can range anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, according to U.S Funerals, an online guide on funeral and cremation services for consumers.

The standard burial involves the embalming process or the preservation of the body using a mixture of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. This exposes the embalmer to these harmful agents and the cemetery’s environment to them as well, Earthman said.

In a water cremation, alkaline chemicals are used. According to Earthman, these chemicals are no more harmful than at-home bleach. Although these chemicals are not safe for human consumption, they pose no real threat to a funeral home worker preparing a body, he said.

The liquid that collects after alkaline hydrolysis is complete goes back into the environment like embalming agents. Unlike embalming chemicals, it is not harmful and is dispensed through sewer systems.

Compared to a flame cremation, water cremations require roughly a twelfth of the energy that is necessary to decompose the body – resulting in smaller levels of carbon emissions into the environment, said Earthman.

“It is just a greener alternative that might be better for your family and for the environment,” Earthman said. “I think soon everything is going to go green, so giving this as an option is important.”

There are some negatives to choosing this form of disposition, one of which is the potential cost increase for families who have to travel to another state.

“Having this be illegal in Texas can absolutely mean there is an increase in the costs for families here that are going out of state,” Neuhaus said. “This travel can add an additional $1,000 to the baseline cost of these cremations.”

And even in states where alkaline hydrolysis is legal, it can be difficult to find funeral homes with the adequate machinery to complete the process. Which places these additional costs on these families too, Neuhaus said.

There are between 50 to 100 funeral homes in the United States that provide alkaline hydrolysis in-house to their customers, Neuhaus said.

Hughes’s funeral home assists many families from Florida (where water cremation is legal), parts of the Midwest and Texas.

“Texas would have quite a few families if they did offer it in state and families didn’t have to fly all the way out here to St. Louis to have this done,” Hughes said.

The Texas Senate Committee of Business and Commerce held a hearing several weeks ago over SB105 that would allow water cremation in the state, but it hasn’t made it out of committee.

And in the House, the Health and Human Services committee has not set a date for a hearing on the House version of this bill.

Texas Senator Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) says some committee members expressed opposition to this fairly new and unfamiliar disposition practice.

“Some people are just uncomfortable with the departure from the traditional historical ways of disposing of human remains, the idea of this process strikes them as fundamentally not right,” Johnson said. “For some people, it just takes a while for them to get around to the idea that it is really not that different from any other practice in terms of honoring and disposing a loved ones’ remains.”

Jennifer Allmon, the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops testified before the Senate committee in opposition to allowing water cremation.

Johnson said that this conference was the largest opponent against the bill, claiming that the way that alkaline hydrolysis disposes of the body does not honor or respect the dead. However, the organization approves of flame cremation – which leaves fewer remains – and is considered the more destructive of the two.

Johnson said that despite some opposition, the idea of water cremation is gaining traction quicker and had more support than in past legislative sessions.

“I think part of the increased interest is curiosity,” Johnson said. “There’s this alternative way to think about what to do with your body when you die, and I think there’s an interest in having a more graceful exit from the world.”