If you care about living sustainably when you’re alive, why not take a strong stance on it after you die, too?
Recently in the news around the death of Nobel Prize winner and beloved human rights activist Desmond Tutu is “aquamation,” a more earth-friendly alternative to cremation.
During the standard cremation process, dead bodies are placed in a cremation chamber. The space is heated to around 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately four hours. The body is reduced to ashes during that time, which are gathered and returned to the family or next of kin.
While cremation is undoubtedly more eco-friendly than a traditional burial — cemeteries can contaminate groundwater, take up valuable public land, and use extreme amounts of water to maintain — it’s still not good for the planet. A 2019 article in the UK’s Guardian reports that a traditional cremation releases 400kg of CO2 (carbon dioxide, which is the lion’s share of the gases causing global warming on Earth) into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of what’s released by an average car burning 45 gallons of gas; it’s a large amount. Within the released gases are additional toxic fumes like mercury, and one cremation uses roughly the same amount of power an average US household consumes in a month. So long story short: it’s not great for the planet.
Enter aquamation, also called alkaline hydrolysis. It’s a more eco-friendly solution with similar results. During aquamation, no greenhouse gases are released, and the amount of fossil fuels needed to power the process is a fraction of what cremation requires. The process involves covering the body with a liquid that’s about 95 percent water and five percent liquid forms of metals like lithium, sodium, and potassium. The solution and body are gently agitated for about eight hours, slowly eroding away all the soft tissues and leaving only bones, which are then processed into ashes.
That final step does take some energy, but it uses only about 25 percent of the amount used in traditional cremation. It also leaves behind non-organic materials like tooth fillings, implants, or metal bone inserts so they can be disposed of in a non-toxic way. The toxicity of the liquid remains, which include both the solution and the organic matter from the body, is usually at or around the limit of what can legally be run down a drain into a public sewer, though many states and cities require funeral homes to contract with a biohazard firm for disposal.
Aquamation has been an option for the last five years or so, but only gained media attention of late with the announcement that Desmond Tutu opted for it after his death on December 26, 2021. Unfortunately, it can still be a bit difficult to find an aquamation facility. The process is only legal in 19 states in the US, though another half-dozen are considering it. But it’s still not a standard offering at most funeral homes. An online search will be the best way to find a facility offering it, but expect no more than one or two options, even in your state’s largest city.
Fortunately, at around $2,000 to $3,000, it’s not drastically more expensive than traditional cremation (average cost $2,000) and is certainly far cheaper than a full burial (at an average cost of around $8,000). If you’re thinking about end-of-life decisions — and foresee a bit of time before those decisions have to be made — you may find that aquamation is the perfect eco-friendly way to say goodbye when the time comes.