Ashes to Ashes

A recent article in the New York Times caught my eye.

California had just become the 15th US state to begin the legalisation of a process that I’d never heard of for disposing of a body after death. The technical term for it is alkaline hydrolysis but it goes by various other names, like flameless cremation, water cremation and green cremation.

Photo courtesy Bio-Response Solutions Inc.

Basically, the human remains are dissolved in a hot chemical bath over a period of hours until all that’s left is an inert brownish liquid and soft bone, which is crushed and returned to relatives much as ashes are after a cremation. When I read that American families are requesting this more frequently in preference to cremation or burial I decided to dig deeper (sorry!).

It turns out that alkaline hydrolysis has been around since the late nineteenth century, but then it was used to process animal carcasses into plant food. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the method was sufficiently developed to use it to dispose of human cadavers and pets. Around a decade ago the machines became available for ordinary funerals.

While some people may instinctively recoil at the thought of simply flushing away what’s left of a dear relative, others find the procedure more comforting than cremation. They perceive it as gentler than having the body literally go up in flames. The chief executive of a US funeral services company that offers both traditional and water-based cremation is quoted in the New York Times as saying that more than two-thirds of families choose the latter when it’s offered.

And alkaline hydrolysis has a significant benefit: it’s more environmentally friendly.

Graphic courtesy Bio-Response Solutions Inc.

Liquefaction uses a fraction of the energy of a standard cremator and releases no fumes; because much less heat is required, metal implants like teeth fillings do not melt, which means no mercury emissions.

Advocates also claim the carbon footprint is one-sixth that of a burial, which requires concrete for headstones, wooden coffins and chemicals for embalming.

In common with cremation it requires less storage space for the buried ashes and a family vault may be reopened at any time, whereas you have to wait a year after a burial. Important considerations in a small town like ours.

As yet, the Roman Catholic Church has no official opinion on alkaline hydrolysis (like me, a local priest I spoke with had never heard of it). But it has permitted cremation since 1963 provided the ashes are buried in an urn in a cemetery or church, and not separated or scattered. There’s no reason to suppose the Church would find it more objectionable to dissolve rather than cremate a body.

As far as I can tell, this relatively new way of disposing of human remains is presently legal in 14 American states and three Canadian provinces (Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario). It’s also legal in the UK, but not yet commercially available.

So could “biocremation” become an option in Gibraltar?

We’ve trail blazed in many areas, most recently the plan to host the first regulated cryptocurrency exchange in the world. Maybe we can become the first country in Europe to offer a more modern way of “encrypting” our loved ones in the future.

Author: gibsteve

Broadcast journalist for 31 years 20 of them as news editor with GBC, the local radio and TV station in Gibraltar. Now retired and finding ways to keep busy.

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