How Does Alkaline Hydrolysis Work? Process, Cost + More

Updated

For hundreds of years, we’ve essentially had two choices for the final disposition of our loved ones: burial or cremation. But now there’s a third option that is slowly gaining notice. It’s called alkaline hydrolysis cremation, and the process involves water instead of flames. It’s eco-friendly, cost-effective, and may just be the next big thing for those who want a greener method of disposition. 

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Whether this is the first time you’ve heard of alkaline hydrolysis, you’ve been considering it, or you simply want to know more, this article has everything you need to know.

What’s Alkaline Hydrolysis?

Alkaline hydrolysis goes by many names, including “water cremation,” to help people understand the process. Instead of a flame-based process that reduces bodies down to bones, alkaline hydrolysis uses a solution of water and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide and agitation. 

During the process, a body is reduced down to its basic components of peptides, amino acids, water, and sugars. In the end, the final product is a sterile solution that is non-toxic and full of bio-nutrients. In other words, it’s perfectly acceptable to place this solution back into the earth.

What makes alkaline hydrolysis special is that the process mirrors the natural process our bodies undergo when buried after death. However, instead of decomposing over months and years in a box in the ground, this process only takes around three to twelve hours.

After the process is complete, bones are removed from the sterile liquid by-product, dried, and ground into ash. The ash from this process can be scattered, buried at sea, or contained in an urn just like any other cremains.

All told, alkaline hydrolysis is the most environmentally friendly disposition method available and it is just as natural as a green burial.

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What’s the Difference Between Alkaline Hydrolysis and Cremation? 

To understand why some people would rather choose alkaline hydrolysis, it’s helpful to know how traditional cremation works

Traditional cremation is flame-based. During the cremation process, extreme heat is used to break down a person’s body over several hours. The body is vaporized and oxidized, leaving behind bones that are then ground into ash.

One of the problems with this process is that harmful chemicals (such as mercury) can enter the air when amalgam fillings are vaporized during the process. Flame-based cremation also uses many non-renewable resources each time a body is cremated, making the process much less eco-friendly than its water-based counterpart.

Alkaline hydrolysis, on the other hand, is a much more eco-friendly process. There are no harmful emissions, and the body is broken down more naturally without the use of flames. Far less energy is used during the process, and the end result is a sterile liquid that’s nutrient-rich. 

White or cream-colored bones are left behind and, once dried, are ground into ash and returned to the family. Families receive an average of 20% more ash than they would with flame-based cremation.

What’s the Cost of Alkaline Hydrolysis? 

As with flame-based cremation, the cost of Alkaline Hydrolysis will vary depending on availability, location, and demand. In general, the prices are slightly higher than flame-based cremation but lower than traditional burial, and you’ll find services ranging from around $900 to $2,500. 

Alkaline hydrolysis is certainly a budget-friendly option. Many providers will also allow you to combine this method of cremation with other traditional offerings such as a viewing prior to the cremation, a committal ceremony (ash scattering or ash burial), and even a funeral service with the body present and embalmed. All of these extras add up, of course, so always ask for the general price list before committing to any add-ons. 

If you would rather hold a memorial service after the cremation, you can do that, too. Depending on the type of memorial service you hold, you can arrange a budget-friendly event or something more elaborate (since you saved so much by choosing cremation). Either way, you’re saving thousands if you compare alkaline hydrolysis with traditional burial. 

What’s the History Behind Alkaline Hydrolysis? 

In 1888, a farmer named Amos Herbert Hanson was searching for a method to dispose of deceased animals in a way that would benefit the earth. What he discovered was that, by using alkaline hydrolysis, he could speed up the way a dead animal naturally decomposed. The end result produced a liquid that was full of beneficial peptides, amino acids, sugar, and water that could be returned to the earth and effectively used as fertilizer.

In 1993, Albany Medical College adopted the process to dispose of human bodies that were donated to science. The process was further refined and eventually became adopted by universities and hospitals to dispose of donated bodies after scientific studies were complete.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the first uses of alkaline hydrolysis in funeral homes took place—one in Ohio and one in Florida. Since then, states have slowly but surely been legalizing the process. Due to mixed opinions and opposition from some religious organizations and parts of the funeral industry, the legalization process has been slow, but it seems to be picking up steam.

How Does Alkaline Hydrolysis Impact the Environment?

Alkaline hydrolysis is a very eco-friendly process with no known negative environmental impact. The entire process uses about 300 gallons of water, which is approximately the equivalent of one person’s daily usage for three days. There are no harmful emissions, and the resulting solution is non-toxic, sterile, and bio-friendly. 

The whole process also uses much less energy than flame-based cremation and, as a result, helps reduce greenhouse gasses. Diseases and pathogens in the body are rendered harmless, and bodies are turned into something that can benefit the earth, rather than harm it. 

The process also reduces the number of caskets used and saves trees in the process since no casket is involved. 

What’s the Process for Alkaline Hydrolysis?

The process for alkaline hydrolysis starts just like the process for flame-based cremation with a body being transferred to the provider. After the body is respectfully covered with a water-soluble shroud, it is placed into a stainless steel chamber.

The chamber is then filled with a solution of water and potassium hydroxide or lye. The cremation chamber is heated to around 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit, and the solution is moved around the body with a gentle rocking motion.

Over a several-hour process, the water and lye solution breaks down the body similarly to the way it would break down when buried. When the process is complete, two parts remain: a sterile liquid and softened bones and teeth.

The remaining liquid can be returned to the earth via the local water treatment plant. Recycling this liquid through a water treatment plant is the same method embalmers use for disposing of bodily fluids that exit the body during the embalming process.

Because the process results in a nutrient-rich solution, some providers even give families the option to donate the liquid to a farm as fertilizer.

The bones are dried then ground into ash. The only difference between the cremains from a flame-based cremation and those from a water cremation is that water-based cremains are pure white and families can expect to receive around 20% more cremains in the end.

Any metals left behind can be sent to a metal refinery to be recycled into new materials. Items such as pacemakers are recovered at the end of the process and recycled.

Where Is Alkaline Hydrolysis Legal? 

Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in 21 U.S. states, and many others are working on legislation to make it legal. It is currently legal in Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. 

In Canada, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec have all legalized the process. British Colombia and the Northwest Territories are considering legislation to make it legal.

Now, while you may be able to legally request alkaline hydrolysis in the states and provinces mentioned above, some areas do not currently have any providers to do the job. So even if you live in a state or province where it’s legal, you may have a hard time finding a service provider. Wyoming is one state where alkaline hydrolysis is legal but there are no service providers that offer it.

How Do You Find an Alkaline Hydrolysis Provider?

There are several different methods you can use to find alkaline hydrolysis providers.

Search the CANA directory

The Cremation Association of North America has a directory that includes alkaline hydrolysis providers across the United States. To search for a provider in your area, enter your city name or postal code, then choose “Cremation, Alkaline Hydrolysis” for the business classification. Click the “Continue” button, and you’ll be directed to a page that lists all alkaline hydrolysis providers in the area registered with CANA. 

From here, you can click on a provider to view their information. On the information page, you’ll find their business location, phone number, a brief description, and their website. 

Search Google

The CANA directory only lists providers that are registered with CANA. If there is a provider in your area that isn’t registered with CANA, their information won’t show up. This is where Google or another search engine comes in handy. 

Enter one of these search terms in the search bar at a time to see what comes up:

  • Alkaline hydrolysis
  • Water cremation
  • Flameless cremation
  • Green cremation
  • Aqua cremation

You might need to try a few different search terms to find available providers in your area, but these terms should typically provide results. You can also try adding your state, province, or region to the initial search term. For example, type “water cremation Washington,” “aqua cremation Saskatchewan,” or “flameless cremation Portland” to view results for your region. This will help narrow down the results and quickly reveal whether there are any providers in your area. 

Ask around

If you can’t come up with many results using the first two options on this list, you might try asking local crematories or funeral homes. They might have connections that aren’t coming up in the search results, such as new providers.

An Eco-Friendly Final Disposition

Just like flame-based cremation, alkaline hydrolysis may not be for everyone. For those who want an environmentally friendly method for their final disposition, you can’t do much better than this option. Whatever method you choose, be sure to discuss your wishes with your family so they understand what it is you want to happen and why.


Sources:
  1. “Alkaline Hydrolysis.” Cremation Options, CANA, 2021. cremationassociation.org.
  2. Keene, Valorie. “Alkaline Hydrolysis Laws in Your State.” Burial and Cremation Laws, NOLO, 2021. nolo.com.
  3. Pflanzer, Lydia. “A Greener Alternative.” Science, Insider, 23 August 2017. businessinsider.com.
  4. “Water Cremation.”Services, The Natural Cremation, 2021. thenaturalfuneral.com  
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