Aquamation: Questions and Answers about Alkaline Hydrolysis as a Funeral Process

Aquamation: Questions and Answers about Alkaline Hydrolysis as a Funeral Process
6 minute read

Daniela Fortino

Aquamation: Questions and answers

When it comes to funerals, families often choose between a burial or cremation for their loved ones. However, with growing trends toward environmental sustainability, another more "eco-friendly" option has become available. It is called aquamation. This article will answer the top 15 most asked questions about this new funeral process.

What is aquamation?

Aquamation is a water-based process for the disposal of human and animal remains. Similar to flame cremation, the process breaks down bodies into bone ash. However, aquamation uses water, heat, and alkalinity instead of flames. The process is the same decomposition that occurs naturally when a body is buried in the ground, except it is accelerated.

The scientific name for aquamation is alkaline hydrolysis. However, it is also referred to using many different terms, including green cremation, bio-cremation, water cremation, liquid cremation, flameless cremation, chemical cremation, and resomation.

How long has aquamation been around?

Aquamation has been around since 1888. It was developed by a farmer named Amos Herbery Hanson to process animal carcasses into fertilizer. It was later used in labs to dispose of contaminated animal bodies. The first commercial aquamation machine was installed at the Albany Medical College in 1993 to dispose of cadavers. The process continued to be used for this purpose in schools and hospitals over the next several years. It was also used commercially for pets as a cheaper alternative to flame cremation.

Throughout the early 2000s to the present day, aquamation has been approved and legalized for use on human remains across many jurisdictions in North America. Minnesota was the first state to approve it in 2003, and Saskatchewan was the first province in Canada to approve it in 2012. However, aquamation was not used by the funeral industry until 2011. It was first used commercially by two funeral homes, one in Ohio and one in Florida. It is now legal in three Canadian provinces and 18 states in the U.S., with pending legalization in several other parts of the continent.

How does aquamation work?

The process of aquamation starts with the placement of a body in a stainless steel vessel. The vessel is filled with water and potassium hydroxide (alkali), which is also referred to as lye, an odourless, off-white flaky, or lumpy solid.

The quantity of alkali used depends on body characteristics such as weight and gender, but the ratio for the solution is approximately 95 per cent water and five per cent alkali. The vessel's contents are then subjected to high temperatures (200 to 320 F / 93 to 160 C) and agitation to prevent boiling and breakdown of organic material. During the process, fats, proteins, minerals, and carbohydrates from the remains are reduced to basic organic components (i.e., fats get reduced to salts). They become dissolved into the water.

The process results in a green-brown liquid and bone remains. Next, the liquid is released from the vessel as wastewater, and the remains and equipment are rinsed with fresh water. Finally, the bone material gets processed into a powder, placed in an urn, and returned to the family or next of kin.

How is leftover liquid disposed of?

A by-product of aquamation is a green-brown, sterile liquid containing peptides, amino acids, sugars, and salts, all by-products of natural decomposition. This liquid can be disposed of through the sewer or wastewater treatment system. Funeral homes in North America use this same waste disposal procedure during the embalming process.

How long does aquamation take?

Aquamation can take anywhere from six hours to 20 hours to complete. The length of time depends on the temperature and pressure used by the equipment. For example, if the session takes place at 300 F, it will take six to eight hours to complete. If a lower temperature of 208 F is used, it will take around 14-16 hours to complete.

How much does it cost?

The cost of aquamation varies depending on the funeral home and what is included in the funeral package. It is generally a bit more expensive than flame cremation. However, the price differences are often not drastic. The price for aquamation typically ranges from $2000 to $3000. Flame cremation can range anywhere from $800 to over $3000.

At Eirene, our Aquamation funerary package costs $3000. Included in this package are care services, transportation, assistance with paperwork, and more. More information on the package can be found here or by calling 647-424-3408. Eirene also has a selection of urns to choose from after the process is completed. These can be found here.

Is a casket required for aquamation?

Unlike flame cremation, a container or casket is not required for aquamation. Casket materials, as well as most cloth materials, will not break down. However, some protein-based materials (e.g., wool) can degrade during the process. Therefore, coverings such as a wool shroud can remain on the body if family members wish.

What happens to medical implants?

Metal implants do not need to be removed before aquamation and do not get destroyed during the process. Instead, the implants come out of the chamber clean and sterilized. They can then be recycled into new materials.

Where is aquamation legal?

In Canada, as of 2021, aquamation is legal in three provinces: Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. It is also legal in 18 U.S. states. These include Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah. A ruling, as of 2021, was pending in New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Outside of North America, the aquamation of human remains has also been approved in the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico and is in the process of being approved in the Netherlands.

Is aquamation a safe process for funerary staff?

Similarly to flame cremation, a large part of the body disposal process is done by machines and equipment. The remainder of the service is conducted by trained funeral professionals, making it a relatively safe process. Additionally, the by-products of aquamation are safe for humans to handle. The ashes are sterilized, making them disease and pathogen-free. The liquid by-product is also sterile and does not contain compounds that would cause significant harm to humans or other animals. That is why it can be disposed of using standard wastewater systems.

Is aquamation safe for the environment?

Aquamation is often considered a sustainable funeral option. Like flame cremation, the process requires fewer resources and leaves less of a physical and environmental footprint. However, aquamation creates no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. There is no mercury by-product. Fossil fuels are not burned. It also uses less energy than flame-based cremation. The ashes, which consist of crushed bone fragments, are not damaging to wildlife or plant life if scattered.

How does aquamation differ from flame cremation?

The main difference between aquamation and frame cremation is the environmental impact each process has. Fewer resources and energy are needed for aquamation. For example, flame cremation requires temperatures of 1,400 to 1,800 F (760 to 982 C). Aquamation requires temperatures of around 320 F (160 C) during the process. Flame cremation emits harmful chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, embalming chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde), and mercury from dental fillings and surgical implants. Aquamation does not directly emit harmful greenhouse gases or mercury.

Other differences are with the ashes. In flame cremation, resulting ashes contain body remains with some ash from the casket, clothing, and anything else within the cremation container. With aquamation, the ashes are typically only bone materials and minerals.

The colour and consistency of the ashes are also slightly different. Ashes from flame cremation are often grey, with a more coarse consistency. In comparison, ashes from aquamation are often a white or tan colour, with a more consistent, smooth, powder consistency. Moreover, aquamation also produces 20-30 per cent more ash than flame cremation.

Can there be a viewing, ceremony, or embalming before aquamation?

Yes, what happens before the aquamation process is up to the family and friends of the deceased. Many will choose to have a viewing or visitation beforehand, and embalming may be part of that. Embalming fluids do not affect the process as they are completely broken down during aquamation.

What can be done with cremated remains after aquamation?

There are many things family and friends can do with cremated remains to honour a loved one. Ashes can be kept in one household or shared with several people using keepsake urns or jewelry. They can be buried in a plot or put on display in a niche at a cemetery. (See more options here.) They can be scattered in a favourite location, sent into space, incorporated into fireworks, and much more.

Memorialization is also not limited to activities with the ashes. Loved ones can arrange a ceremony, a celebration of life party, a candle lighting ceremony, a lantern release party, and so on. The options are essentially endless; whatever can be done with flame cremation ashes can be done with aquamation ashes.

Why choose aquamation?

One of the main reasons to choose aquamation is that it has less environmental impact without sacrificing quality or incurring a high cost. Additionally, it is a more gentle process and results in more ashes that can be shared with family and friends. This makes aquamation a great alternative to flame cremation and burials, especially for eco-conscious people who want to reduce their impact on the environment, even in death. For more information on aquamation, please see our aquamation Q&A page.