SALT LAKE CITY — For 2,000 years, cremation was widely considered a pagan practice, the desecration of human remains. Now it’s more common than burial in the U.S. and might be eclipsed by an even more controversial method of disposition: dissolving the body in a scalding hot bath of chemicals and water.
The process is called alkaline hydrolysis, and in May, Utah became the 16th state to make it legal. Proponents say the method, sometimes called aquamation or flameless cremation, is better for the environment than cremation, and that it’s a gentler process than incineration.
It’s also an alternative for people who don’t want to be buried, but are uncomfortable with cremation, said Cole Houghton, the owner of Tate Mortuary in Tooele, who plans to offer alkaline hydrolysis beginning in the fall.
But alkaline hydrolysis has an unsettling component that cremation lacks: The body’s tissues and organs dissolve into a syrupy liquid that is treated like wastewater; in effect, most of the body is liquified and goes down the drain.
In New Hampshire, where alkaline hydrolysis is prohibited, the Diocese of Manchester has said the process is disrespectful to human remains, and opposition by Roman Catholics has helped to block legislation in Ohio and other states.
But some religious scholars say cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, both chemical processes, are morally equivalent, and the Cremation Association of North America considers alkaline hydrolysis a type of cremation, even though the process involves heat, but not fire.
Dust to dust
Cremation rates in the U.S. surpassed burial for the first time in 2015, and the cremation rate, which was just 3.7 percent in 1945, is expected to top 75 percent within the next 30 years. Its widespread acceptance in America has been rapid, given that for much of Christian history, cremation was discouraged or banned.
Ancient Romans and Greeks cremated their dead, but Jewish people did not, citing the Torah’s proscription “to dust you shall return,” among other verses in Scripture.
The early Christians, too, buried their dead, partly out of reverence for the body that God created, partly to distance themselves from pagan practices. In the year 789, the emperor Charlemagne made cremation illegal.
But just as religious groups suppressed cremation, they also enabled its rise. The Catholic Church lifted its prohibition of the practice in 1963, and later evangelist Billy Graham saidcremation was “no hindrance to the resurrection."
Afterwards, cremation rates grew slowly but steadily over the next four decades, reaching 50.2 percent in 2016, with burial dropping to 43.5 percent.
Other methods of disposition, such as donating the body to science or entombment, are not tabulated in the National Funeral Directors Association’s annual report, nor is alkaline hydrolysis, which is counted as a cremation.
In a typical alkaline hydrolysis procedure, the body is placed in a steel chamber that weighs the body and then automatically fills the chamber with water and a combination of chemicals, primarily potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The solution is then heated and pressurized.
Within about 3 hours, “the body is effectively broken down into its chemical components,” said Brad Walker of the Utah Funeral Directors Association, likening the procedure to a "gentle bath." Lower-temperature machines take longer, up to 16 hours.
The process uses about 300 gallons of water, said Caitlin Doughty, a California mortician and author who runs a non-profit funeral home and believes alkaline hydrolysis is a "green" way to deal with human remains.
"That may seem like a lot, but a study in Las Vegas determined that the water used to keep one grave green in a traditional cemetery was 2,500 gallons a year. Just a single year. Versus 300 gallons one time," Doughty said in an email.
The remaining fluid, which is the color of coffee, contains no DNA or RNA since the chemicals break proteins down into amino acids. It is a sterile solution compromised of amino acids, peptides, sugars and soap, and any pathogens in the body die during the process, Houghton said.
The liquid is drained from the chamber, and the bones are rinsed before they are removed and dried. Afterwards, the bones are pulverized into a fine powder that resembles powdered sugar. Families receive about 20 percent more of the bone than is available after a cremation.
In Utah, where alkaline hydrolysis became legal in May, it took two legislative sessions to pass, not because of organized opposition from religious groups, but because “it took some legislators time to warm up to this from a personal, moral standpoint,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, chief sponsor of the bill.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Handy is a member, did not take a stand on the bill. Church policy states that it “does not normally encourage cremation,” but leaves the decision to families.
Similarly, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake did not take a position on the Utah bill, and equated the process with cremation. “Cremation has been approved for decades and the method, as long as it respects the body, is not a concern. We do teach that the ashes should be placed in a sacred space following any form of cremation,” Jean Hill, government liaison for the Diocese of Salt Lake, said in an email.
In Utah, as in several other states, the driving force behind drafting legislation was not to advocate for alkaline hydrolysis, but to ensure that, if it’s done, it’s done within proper parameters, Handy said.
“We don’t want two guys in a garage doing this; it should be done by licensed funeral homes,” he said.
The word "cremation" comes from the Latin word "cremare" which means to burn or consume by fire. But some people call alkaline hydrolysis "water cremation" or "flameless cremation," which is not as offputting as the phrase "tissue digestion," a phrase sometimes used in discussion of using the process for animal remains.
Matt Baskerville, a funeral director in Illinois and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said when people who are interested in cremation are presented with "flameless cremation" as an option, that gets their interest.
Baskerville said his business, Reeves & Baskerville Funeral Homes in Coal City, Illinois, has offered alkaline hydrolysis for nearly seven years, and about 45 percent of families considering cremation select this option.
When people are making plans for disposal of their own remains, however, the number jumps to about 80 percent among those who are considering cremation. Baskerville believes that’s because people like the idea, but some aren’t comfortable choosing it for their elderly loved ones who may not have even known about the process.
Baskerville said the cost of the equipment is prohibitive to some funeral homes; his own company sends remains to a facility about 50 miles away.
“I would have one installed tomorrow if it were cost effective,” he said.
Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions in Danville, Indiana, said his company is the largest provider of alkaline hydrolysis equipment worldwide, and that he offers a low-temperature model that costs about $150,000. The process takes longer than the high-temperature model that costs $220,000 — overnight, as opposed to a few hours.
Despite the investment, Wilson said his customers have told him it’s been worth it. “People will pay more for water than fire if you offer them both. All of our customers have told us that,” he said.
Among Wilson's customers is Houghton, in Tooele, who has ordered a high-temperature model and will offer the service to his own customers as well as other funeral homes in Utah after the equipment is delivered in the fall.
Houghton said it will cost about 15 percent more than cremation by fire, which, before added costs such as a service, ranges from about $800 to $2,600 in Utah, depending on the funeral home.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a cremation with a funeral service and viewing in 2017 was $6,260.
Peter Morin, executive director of the New Hampshire Funeral Directors & Embalmers Association, said his organization is not “in favor or against” the procedure, but backed the legislation when it was proposed because the group wanted to be able to offer families the option and to have regulations in place to prevent its abuse.
The popular TV show “Breaking Bad,” among others, demonstrated that criminals can use chemical baths to cover up their crimes, as have murderers in real life.(One serial killer in England in the 1940s was known as the “Acid Bath Murderer.”)
The state funeral board already has regulations drafted and ready to go if legislators take it up again, but for now, the opposition from the Roman Catholic diocese in New Hampshire, as well as just general disinterest, seems to have put the matter on the shelf. “It just didn’t seem to catch on with people,” Morin said, and the relatively few families who do opt for the process can have their loved one’s body transported to a facility in Maine.
Besides Utah, Illinois and Maine, other states that currently allow alkaline hydrolysis include Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Vermont.
Doughty, the owner of the nonprofit funeral home in California, said states that have successfully passed laws allowing alkaline hydrolysis had to mount aggressive publicity campaigns to overcome objections from state funeral boards and corporations that make money off traditional ground burials.
"(Alkaline hydrolysis) has been extensively studied and used in prestigious medical schools for years. There is absolutely no reason the process shouldn't be legal everywhere," she said, while acknowledging the disposal of the liquid is what makes many people squeamish.
"There are several entrepreneurs that have fantastic ideas about using the remaining liquid as energy, as fertilizer, etc. But my instinct is that the public is not ready," she said.
However, Wilson, who got into the business 22 years ago after seeing a presentation on alkaline hydrolysis for animal remains, is enthusiastic about the potential for using the liquid to benefit the environment. He said facilities that use the liquid, which he calls "a nutritious broth," on nearby grounds, have noticeably greener grass, and even sewage plants, which seethe with microbes, are healthier. "A sewage plant is a living entity. It (the liquid) is really good for the plant," he said.
Some people like the idea of their liquid remains helping a garden to grow, of their body being useful on Earth even in death.
"As long as I'm not using my body anymore, at least it should go to some use, the thinking goes," wrote Kent J. Lasnoski, an assistant professor of theology at Wyoming Catholic College, in a paper called "Are Cremation and Alkaline Hydrolysis Morally Distinct?"
But for others, the separation of the liquid from the bone powder presents a spiritual problem, since the remains are not kept in one place, as the Catholic Church requires.
In 2016, the Vatican issued a new statement on cremation, affirming the process but saying that cremated remains should not be scattered or divided among family members, but should be interred at a cemetery or other sacred place.
Doing so, "prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away."