Giving the dearly departed a respectful burial is one of the last things we’re able to do for loved ones who have passed on. What better way to pay them back for a lifetime of love and respect than tossing them in a vat where they will slowly liquefy into a brown soap-smelling slurry? That’s exactly what nearly a dozen companies throughout North America are beginning to offer recently-bereft families seeking a ‘green’ alternative to traditional burials or cremations. Bills are being passed in more and more U.S. states in order to legalize the procedure.
In the good ol’ days of just tossing grandma into a ditch out back to rot, the environmental impact of human burials was scant. Animals would take care of most of the solids, and the rest would be reabsorbed by the hungry ground. Now, with modern embalming techniques and the synthetic construction materials of consumer coffins, below-ground burials are just one more way we can leave our perpetual polluted mark on the planet. Traditional cremation, likewise, can release harmful toxins and pollutants into the atmosphere.
This new liquefaction method, known as alkaline hydrolysis, reduces the environmental impact of burials to minimal levels – although with certain caveats (more on that later). The technique involves a machine lovingly referred to as a tissue digester, essentially a human-sized pressurized tank. Water and highly alkaline potassium hydroxide are sprayed into the tank, which is then heated to 152C (306F) for three to four hours. What remains is a perfect set of bones, which are then pulverized into a fine powder inside a cremulator.
The mortuaries offering this service claim that the resultant body soup is a sterile solution of benign amino acids and peptides, with no traces of human DNA. The creepy fluid is then flushed down conventional sewer lines where it is reclaimed by wastewater treatment facilities. One more reason I love my mountain well water. Critics contend that the ‘flushing’ of the human remains soup is undignified, unhealthy, and downright icky. Philip Olson, a philosopher at Virginia Tech who studies funerary practices, says the practice is slow to catch on because it simply creeps some people out:
It seems like you’re treating Grandma or any loved one like waste. That you’re just flushing them away. It seems disrespectful, it seems irreverent.
However, with the price of alkaline hydrolysis currently far below that of traditional cremation or burials, I say just toss grandma right in. She always loved being near water.