Is Burial Dead?

New Law Gives Californians an Additional Option to Go Out Green

Has traditional burial gone the way of cassette tapes, answering machines, and phone booths?

Not yet, but it may be heading in that direction. According to the National Funeral Association, in 2015, consumers chose traditional burial over flame cremation for the first time in history.

Burial may eventually drop into third place in California after January 1, 2020, when Assembly Bill 967 goes into effect, making the disposal of human remains by alkaline hydrolysis, or liquid cremation, legal in the state.

Governor Brown signed the bill on October 15, 2017, making California the 15th state to allow the process of liquid cremation. The new law requires any facility performing alkaline hydrolysis to obtain a business license from the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau (CFB) to operate.

This means Californians, always in search of a greener way of living, may now have a greener way of dying as well.

This is how it works: A body is placed inside a large pressurized tank with a hatch on one end. An alkaline chemical compound (usually sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or a combination of the two) is combined with water in the tank and heated for several hours (amounts of time, temperature, water and chemicals depend on the measurements of the body). What is left behind is a brown, sterile, soapy liquid that can be poured into a sewer system. The chemical used ensures that nothing—not even DNA—survives. Left behind on the tray are bones, which are pulverized and can be put into an urn, just like in flame cremation, and medical devices, such pacemakers, implants, etc., and fillings or crowns, some of which have metals that can be recycled.

Dean Fisher, director of the Donated Body Program at UCLA, places a body into the Resomator for hydrolysis. Photo: Wired UK

After the procedure, the bones are pulverized and can be placed into an urn or scattered just like ashes from a flame cremation.

Parts of you can be recycled, your bones can be scattered, and the rest of you goes down the drain—pretty green, right?

Proponents of hydrolysis say yes. They claim the process leaves a carbon footprint that’s about a tenth of that caused by burning bodies and it uses a fraction of the energy of a standard cremator and releases no fumes. This stands in stark contrast to traditional cremation methods, which, proponents say, contribute to pollution by producing carbon emissions and inorganic materials, such as mercury tooth fillings, also heat up and emit toxic chemicals into the air.

Although right now hydrolysis is more expensive than traditional cremation—funeral homes typically charge an extra $150–$500 for hydrolysis depending on location and equipment, the price of cremation—by either fire or water—is still a more economical choice compared to traditional burial, which is the least green of the three methods. Bodies that are buried are embalmed and filled with chemicals that eventually leach into the ground—not to mention the materials from the casket and concrete liners. Plus, cemeteries are running out of room.

Some people cannot get past the “yuck factor” of being poured into the sewer system; others find it to be a more comforting end—a body being placed in a nice, warm bath as opposed to being put to the flame.

Which will you choose?

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