Frequent Questions - Aquamation (Alkaline Hydrolysis)
Aquamation has many names – Alkaline hydrolysis, resomation, water cremation, dissolution and aquamation. All of them refer to the same process – reducing the human body “ashes” by removing the soft tissue in an alkaline solution.
Because this technology is new to our industry, everyone has been struggling for the past 5-10 years trying to figure out what to call it. One of the first tank manufacturers trademarked the name “Resomation” and it probably would have stuck, but for the fact that they legally locked it down.
Those that wanted to give it some familiarity, called it “water cremation”. Not bad, we suppose, but the real challenge here is that water cremation implies, somehow, that there’s still a flame involved somewhere.
Alkaline hydrolysis is the name of the actual process, but lets face it. There’s nothing sexy to a marketing department in a chemical process as a name. And it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or even tell the average person just what is being presented.
Dissolution is the legal term that Oregon has landed on for the process. We really loathe the term, but because it has to be on all of our authorizing documents, we’ve kept it sprinkled around so that it isn’t some kind of weird surprise to see it in writing.
Aquamation, while awkward in it’s own right, seems to us to strike a balance between a familiar word, a new process, and the integration of “water’ into the term itself.
So there ya go. If you think of something better, feel free to let us know. Or the New York Times.
Because aquamation involves heating water under pressure, there is certainly an energy input in the process, but it is significantly lower than that of flame based cremation. The total amount of energy used is only 10% of the energy that is used for flame based cremation.
Since there is no combustion or smoke stack, there are no emissions of mercury, CO2, or particulate matters from the direct process (for carbon geeks, there are no scope 1 emissions in the process). Almost all the energy in the process is just the energy used to heat the water.
After the process, the water is stored in a tank and is given to a grass (sod) farm and arborists as nutrient rich water for their plants. With this step, our aquamation process is closing the cycle of life and bringing richness to plants to continue the life cycle again.
NO! Hearkening back to high school chemistry that none of us listened to, you might recall the pH scale – one end of the scale is acid 0 and on the other end of the scale is alkali 14. Distilled water in the middle is a comfy 7.
The aquamation process is actually the opposite of an acid bath. As the name implies, the solution that the body goes into in the alkaline hydrolysis process, is a base solution – alkali. This pH is because the substance used is sodium hydroxide is a strong alkali substance. It is actually found in many cosmetic products and cleaners because it is the chemical that actually allows soap to lift the dirt and get things clean.
The alkaline hydrolysis (AH) process, also referred to as aquamation, has actually been around over a century in use with animals that have passed. The process is quite simple:
Water is heated to about 300 degrees (f) with a chemical called sodium hydroxide. This solution is a base, or alkaline (see alkaline/acid FAQ), solution that works to speed up the decomposition process. The body is placed into the aquamation chamber that is sealed and the solution is added. Under pressure, the water is heated and the process begins to work on the soft tissues of the body.
When a body is buried in the ground, over time the macromolecules, such as fat, protein, and DNA are broken down into their components as water hydrolyzes the cellular structure and returns the nutrients of the body to the earth.
When a body is aquamated, this same process takes place, but instead of months or even years, it takes a few hours. The active process is about three hours. The liquid that is left over from the process can then be returned to the earth as nutrients for plants.
What remains after this process is the bones. The same thing that remains after regular fire cremation, with two significant improvements – the bones from aquamation are whiter and we are able to return, on average, 20% more remains because the process doesn’t involve fire and a chimney so there’s no particulate loss!
These bones are taken out of the chamber and air-dried. They are extremely brittle, and are processed into a powdery consistency, much like the ashes that you might be familiar with in traditional flame cremation.
One would think that Washington would have been one of the first states to adopt a new technology that is at the forefront of green tech. Unfortunately, we weren’t.
There have been multiple attempts to get legislation through Olympia, but up until recently, we have been a little late to the game. Fortunately, in May of 2019, the legislation passed and we are expecting that our state will have everything ironed out by mid 2020. Oregon on the other hand, has adopted it as a form of disposition (the legal term for the end of the road for a human body – burial, cremation, and medical donation are all “disposition”) years ago, and so it is available for us as their neighbors to come down and do it.
We at Elemental have been waiting patiently for years to have this technology, and as creative and progressive as we have been, it never occurred to us that we could just go to the neighboring state and partner with a firm down there. When our founder, Jeff, was at a convention and he was talking with one of the tank manufacturers and they suggested “Why don’t you partner with Aqua Green in Portland?” We thought it was a splendid idea.
So, that is “why Oregon” and it is a HUGE honor to be the first funeral firm in the Puget Sound area to bring aquamation to the families in our community.
Aquamation is the reduction of the body by a chemical process, not a flame process. In traditional cremation, the soft tissue is removed with fire. In aquamation, the tissues are dissolved into water. What remains after either process are the bones of the deceased. These are processed into a powder – “ash”
The process is 90% more efficient than flame cremation. Think of flame cremation as a diesel truck, and aquamation as a Nissan Leaf.
Many people think of the process as more “gentle” because it doesn’t use fire to reduce the body. The aquamation process “unzips” the molecules of the tissues and dissolves them in water. We aren’t here to make a judgement call, we’re just providing some perspective.
While it hasn’t been in widespread use in humans for long, it is a century old technology in use for animals. It is hardly a “new thing” when it comes to it’s use, so don’t think of this as experimental.
What is returned looks like cremated remains, but lighter in color. There is also 20% more because there isn’t the high heat and air movement that sends particulates up the chimney.
This technology embodies everything that Elemental stands for – stewardship of our planned, community engagement, and healing for our families. It is a better way of caring for our deceased and as such, contributes significantly to our vision to change the way, we as a culture, engage with our dead.
If you are thinking about aquamation as a disposition for you or a loved one you should, if you aren’t already, be researching this on third party sites, technical reviews, and larger cultural evaluations of this. And you are going to find some really negative stuff. So let’s get that out in the open right now.
With anything new, there are detractors. Here’s a little industry secret – the funeral industry thinks that cremation is a new technology. They are still actively trying to deal with the “cremation problem.” So, you can see where the notion of a new-to-market technology like aquamation might be a little outside their scope, as it were.
Here are a couple of the most common shockers that people say about the process:
You might see “You’re just dumping grandpa down the drain.” Actually, this one, is a no. The effluent (the water post aquamation) is actually stored in a 1200 gallon tank so that agriculture partners can come to get the effluent to use on their crops. The primary person that is using it for nutrients for his crop is a Portland area sod farmer, who we’re guessing, has some of the greenest grass out there. For those firms that are going straight to wastewater, the municipalities love them. The effluent is actually a really good micronutrient package that can benefit wastewater treatment and is beneficial for maintaining and preserving pipes. So these people are also doing their part for infrastructure.
You will hear “Turning grandma into goo.” Yep. We can temper this kind of talk with the science, the facts, and the reality and you really should take a look at the Alkaline Hydrolysis Demystified tab here in this FAQ, but the reality is that yeah, you kind of are. You are also turning grandma into goo if you bury her and you are turning her into cinders if you cremate her. Our industry has either been trying to demonize or pretty up the raw reality of post-mortem decay for a long time. What actually happens to the human body after death, no matter what method you choose, can be turned into some kind of nightmareish imagery. Aquamation, of the legal dispositions, is actually a pretty nice way to go when you choose the right adjectives and nouns.
If you hear of others that you find repugnant or shocking, let us know. Talk to us about it. There may be some merit, there may not. If you haven’t figured it out yet – we are super excited about this method because we truly believe that it helps our planet and keeps the cycle of life a beautiful closed circle.
No matter what – we are Switzerland when it comes to what you want. We don’t want you doing anything with a family member that you aren’t comfortable with. If you want cremation, THAT’S WHAT WE DO! It is in our name. We are here as a resource for you and can help demystify and counsel, but ultimately, the choice is completely up to you.