SAN DIEGO—Eight times a year a funeral director sets off by boat from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base carrying about two dozen plastic bags filled with unusual human remains. The powder he pours overboard is from corpses that have been “cremated”—not by fire, but by liquid.
That’s how the University of California, Los Angeles, disposes of bodies donated to science: by dissolving the flesh off their bones. The bones are then ground to dust and scattered into the sea two miles offshore, forming white rings that slowly float away into the Pacific Ocean.
U.C.L.A. is the only place in California that liquefies the dead. But after five years and hundreds of bodies processed, Dean Fisher, director of the university’s Donated Body Program, hopes to change that. He has been working with state legislators on a bill allowing funeral homes to use this process, called alkaline hydrolysis. The state Senate has until September 15 to consider the legislation, which has already sailed through California’s lower house with a vote of 71 to 3. “The science says this technology is safe and has environmental benefits,” Fisher says. If California approves the new death rite, it would join a club that includes parts of Canada and several U.S. states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Wyoming.
But this means of final disposition crosses uncomfortable lines for some. Consider the case of Edwards Funeral Service in Columbus, Ohio, which started offering alkaline hydrolysis in 2011: Owner Jeff Edwards dissolved 19 corpses before the Ohio Department of Health suddenly stopped granting permits for the process, and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors accused him of “immoral or unprofessional conduct.” A messy legal battle left him with $150,000 worth of equipment that is gathering dust, he says. He now transports bodies across state lines, to Chicago, for the procedure.
A 2010 bill to legalize alkaline hydrolysis in California failed, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, largely due to concerns over lack of data about how the liquid waste it creates might affect aging sewer pipes and employees’ health at crematoria—safety concerns that Fisher says he has addressed after years of testing with the City of Los Angeles. A second bill in 2013 for a pilot program in five funeral homes also failed to make it across the finish line. And the California Catholic Conference is urging the state’s Senate to vote “no” on the latest legislation, concerned that alkaline hydrolysis “does not appear to respectfully treat human remains.”
Proponents note that traditional cremation is trending upward in the U.S. In 2015 more people in this country were burned than put in the ground for the first time, according to a report by the National Funeral Directors Association. This fad is driven in part by price: A fire cremation usually costs less than a third of a burial, according to an industry report by market research firm IBISWorld. It also saves on some natural resources; a burial requires land as well as the stone, steel, cloth and wood used to make the casket and gravestone.
Some see alkaline hydrolysis—versions of which go by the names biocremation, aquamation and resomation—as the next big thing for those who want to make an environmentally friendly exit.
The technique has its origins in an 1888 patent for making fertilizer and gelatin, which describes dissolving animal parts in an alkaline solution such as potassium hydroxide. In the 1990s two researchers began disposing of lab animals this way at Albany Medical College in New York State. Their work informed the construction of the first machine that could handle a single human body, built by a company called WR2 and first used in the Mayo Clinic’s anatomical bequest program in Rochester, Minn., in 2006.
Such machines break down tissue using lye (water mixed with a small quantity of potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide), which snaps the chemical bonds that hold together proteins, fats, DNA and other bodily building blocks. Multiple mechanisms can be used: The most expensive machines boil the lye at high pressure and 150 degrees Celsius, which can disintegrate a body in few hours. Cheaper models—unpressurized and operating below boiling point—might take a day (and are frowned on by some of those championing the pressurized approach, who are not convinced the budget-friendly models will always fully digest the remains). Some machines keep the body horizontal; others tip it into the lye. But with any of these approaches what comes out should be a brown soup of simple organic molecules that can be poured into a sewer system. The bones, however, do not dissolve. They can be pulverized and given to the family of the deceased.
Companies marketing the technique trumpet its low greenhouse gas emissions compared with flame crematoriums that burn natural gas. Alkaline hydrolysis uses energy primarily to heat and cool the lye—and thus emits about 80 percent less carbon dioxide—according to an estimate by TNO, an independent research and development consulting organization in the Netherlands. “If you’re concerned about gas emissions, the choice is pretty obvious,” says California Assemblyman Todd Gloria. He wrote California’s new bill after being approached by Qico, a company in San Diego prototyping alkaline hydrolysis technology.
But how much carbon is actually emitted in both processes? The Dutch numbers, which are usually cited by those championing alkaline hydrolysis, suggest cremations by fire account for only a few thousandths of a percent of total carbon emissions in the U.S. Every person who becomes liquid instead of ash would keep about 180 kilograms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, according to the TNO report. That’s about as much as the typical U.S. citizen is responsible for emitting in just a few days.
There are other benefits to alkaline hydrolysis, proponents say: Inorganic materials like tooth fillings and breast implants are left behind by the process. That could ease fears of toxic chemicals such as mercury from burned tooth fillings polluting the air near crematoriums—and of pacemakers exploding inside crematoria.
Alkaline hydrolysis produces no smoke to worry about. But is the soapy soup it dumps into the sewer safe? Disease should not be a problem because the roiling lye sterilizes the organic material, says Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions. The company, based in Danville, Ind., built many of the low-cost units now used in funeral homes, including Jeff Edwards’s in Ohio. “It’s hot as hell in there, and alkali is a powerful sterilant at temperature,” Wilson says. Testing on animal carcasses, much of which has been peer-reviewed, seems to back his claims. “Even the hardiest pathogen, an anthrax spore, is easily killed,” he says, adding that the process also breaks down toxic chemicals such as embalming fluid.
One worry might be amount of water used in the process—about 300 gallons per corpse. Gloria says this might be a consideration during droughts but is otherwise a drop in the bucket. “If every Californian who died in one year used water cremation, it would amount to 64 million gallons of water in that year,” he says. “One L.A. [water] treatment plant uses more than 500 million gallons in a day.”
Of greater concern is the high pH involved in the process, which scuttled the first California bill seeking to legalize alkaline hydrolysis. The machine at U.C.L.A. discharges waste that is a stronger base than a typical household drain unclogging fluid; it exceeds pH 11, the limit for discharge into the environment set by Los Angeles to protect against corrosion of skin and metal. Other cities have even stricter standards. In San Francisco nothing beyond pH 9 can go down the drain. Fisher’s device can add acid to lower pH before disposing of the remains; others bubble in carbon dioxide. But California is not taking chances. Responding to concerns from the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, the new bill requires funeral homes offering alkaline hydrolysis to apply to their local water authority for a permit to send the liquid remains into the sewer on-site—or to pay a company experienced in biological waste disposal to get rid of them.
How we treat our dead is a delicate issue. The “yuck factor” that often accompanies thinking about what happens to bodies of our loved ones was invoked by an Indiana lawmaker (and casket maker) to derail alkaline hydrolysis there. “We’re going to put them in acid [sic] and just let them dissolve away, and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” said state Rep. Dick Hamm, as reported by The Indianapolis Star. But Gloria doesn’t see anything icky about new tech; he hopes to help establish a new norm, and he is starting with the man in the mirror. “I plan to be cremated,” he says. “It would be poetic if I could take advantage of my own bill.”