Hawaiian traditional cultural death practices have come to a halt in modern times due to health and environmental regulations. However, a newer disposition option called aquamation or flameless cremation, adopted by some U.S. states and Canadian provinces, offers Hawaiians a way to preserve some of their traditional funeral rites. Learn more about how aquamation could fit with Hawaiian burial practices below.
What is Aquamation?
Aquamation is essentially a water-based form of cremation. Traditional flame cremation reduces a body into bone fragments (later reduced into powder or "ash") by exposing it to extreme heat in a purpose-made furnace. Aquamation has a similar end-product but achieves this through the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis.
In the aquamation process, a body is exposed to water, heat, pressure, and alkali (a chemical composed of potassium hydroxide), which produces a reaction that speeds up the body's decomposition. The same decomposition process occurs naturally when a body is buried in the ground.
When aquamation is completed, bone fragments and a sterile liquid is left behind. The fragments are then pulverized to create a powder and placed in an urn. The sterile liquid is disposed into the local municipal sewer or wastewater treatment system.
Ashes produced from aquamation have a slightly different appearance than those resulting from flame cremation. Ashes from flame cremation are often grey, with a more coarse consistency. In contrast, ashes from aquamation are often a white or tan colour, with a more consistent, smooth, powder consistency.
The process is commonly referred to as aquamation or, by its scientific name, alkaline hydrolysis. However, it may also include water cremation, liquid cremation, green cremation, flameless cremation, chemical cremation, and resomation.
Traditional Hawaiian Burial Practices and Aquamation
Traditional Hawaiian burial practices typically centre around preserving and protecting "iwi" or bones.
Native Hawaiians traditionally believe that iwi carries the deceased's spiritual essence (called "mana"). In their funeral practices, the deceased's body is placed in an underground oven called an "imu." In the imu, the flesh is cleanly removed from the skeletal bone. The bones are then wrapped in Kapa, a fabric made from the fibres of certain trees and shrubs. They are then hidden to preserve the mana of the deceased.
Aquamation facilitates a similar outcome to traditional Hawaiian cultural death rites. It produces clean and sterilized bones. Essentially, it is a more modern version of traditional practices.
"It’s basically a modern technology of an imu," Kawehi Correa, President of Aloha Mortuary, told Hawaii Public Radio. "So your body sits in a chamber of pressurized water and what it does is it gently starts to decompose its flesh. At the end of the cycle, the bones well at least 90 percent of them are left pristinely white."
Although some of bone is destroyed in the process, aquamation leaves about 20 to 30 per cent more remains than with flame cremation. The resulting bones are also whiter. However, they are also more fragile and brittle.
Aquamation also has environmental benefits. Flame cremation results in emissions such as carbon monoxide, embalming chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde), and mercury from dental fillings and body implants. Aquamation has no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses or mercury, no burning of fossil fuels, and uses less energy than flame-based cremation. This reduces the carbon footprint by about 75 per cent.
The liquid byproduct of aquamation is also sterile and can be disposed of through the sewer or wastewater treatment system. Additionally, all remaining implants and fillings are sterilized and recycled afterward.
Aquamation in the United States and Canada
As of November 2021, aquamation has been legalized in 20 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. They include Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming.
In Canada, aquamation is legal in Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan.
States such as Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and others are in the process of legalizing aquamation. There is growing support for aquamation in Alberta and British Columbia, including this B.C. aquamation petition. However provincial governments have been slow to respond.
The Future of Aquamation in Hawaii
As noted above, aquamation is not yet legal for humans in Hawaii. However, it is legal for use on animals and is used by veterinarians across the state and at the University of Hawaii research lab in Manoa. Nonetheless, the legislative process to allow for its use as a human funerary practice is under way.
In 2021, Hawaii State Senator Jarett Keohokalole introduced bills to allow aquamation in the state. Many were in favour of this. However, there has been some pushback.
Several funeral homes in the state opposed the bill. Some experts say more consideration should be put into regulations. There are also concerns about water usage and the cost of aquamation machinery. Nonetheless, the legalization process moved forward early in 2022 year.
On Feb. 1, 2022, HB1894 (the current bill to legalize the usage of alkaline hydrolysis) was passed by the House Committee on Health, Human Services, and Homelessness. It has now been referred to the House Committees on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.
An earlier version of the bill, HB 1602, was introduced but failed due to opposition from local mortuaries affiliated with Service Corporation International, a Houston-based company that operates thousands of cremation facilities and cemeteries in 43 states.
The current bill has no direct opposition. However, the Hawaii Funeral and Cemetery Association has raised similar concerns to the ones mentioned above and has called for regulatory oversight of the process.
Questions about Aquamation?
You can find answers to your questions about aquamation in our Aquamation Questions and Answers article. If you are interested in arranging aquamation for yourself or a loved one in Ontario or Sasksatchewan, you can make aquamation arrangements with Eirene.