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What is aquamation? The ‘green’ alternative to cremation chosen by Desmond Tutu, and the UK rules explained



In death as in life, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has thrown a spotlight on environmental issues with his choice of an aquamation over burial or cremation.

The Nobel Prize winner, human rights activist and environmental campaigner died on Boxing Day and his funeral took place at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on Saturday.

Among his instructions for his funeral was that his remains would undergo aquamation.

We take a look at this “green” alternative to cremation or burial.

What is aquamation?

Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, resomation, liquid cremation, biocremation or water cremation, is a process in which the body of a deceased person is broken down by water and chemicals.

The body is placed in a large chamber with a solution of hot water and an alkaline chemical, either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide (known as lye or caustic soda) or a mix of both.

Temperatures reach 160℃ but the pressure in the chamber prevents the water from boiling.

This combination of water, heat, and chemical compounds causes the tissues and fats of the body to dissolve over the course of three to four hours.

Only the bones are left, which can then be powdered and returned to relatives in an urn.

It has previously been used for the processing of animal bodies and human bodies used for medical research.

Where is it legal?

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) said under current law it would only be permitted subject to compliance with health, safety and environmental regulation and is not a service presently on offer in the UK, though there are a number of organisations working with local government to bring it in.

It said the adoption of the process in the UK will be dependent on making sure anything entering the waters at the end of the process is “appropriate”.

NAFD said it is important when the law is reformed it recognises the huge changes which have taken place in terms of funerals in recent years and make reasonable provision for the introduction of additional forms of disposal.

The service is available in other countries including in certain states in the US, three states in Canada, parts of Australia, Mexico, South Africa and the Netherlands.

What it costs?

Costs for the alkaline hydrolysis service in the US can range from $900 to $2,500, the equivalent to £665 to £1847.

In comparison, the average cost of a traditional cremation in the UK is around £800, and the average cost of a burial is around £1,700, according to funeralguide.co.uk.

Why is aquamation considered more environmentally-friendly?

The process is considered to be better for the environment because fewer greenhouse gases are emitted in the process than in flame cremation.

It is reported to use up to 90 per cent less energy than a traditional cremation, while there is no need for a coffin to be burned, and up to 30 per cent more ash remains are returned to the family.

Are there other green burial options?

Alternative methods of disposing of bodies in an environmentally-friendly way include a form of “human composting”.

Bodies are placed in a heated mixture of wood chips and plants and over the course of 30 days microbes and bacteria break down human remains, resulting in around two wheelbarrows of soil.

Another method is the infinity burial suit, or mushroom burial suit, which contains a mix of mushrooms and other microorganisms which decompose the body rendering it a compost for fungi.

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