Aquamation vs. Cremation: 12 Differences to Know

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Even though it has been a long time coming, suddenly it seems as if the world has another burial alternative. You may have heard it described as “water cremation” or the more-scientific sounding name of “alkaline hydrolysis.” For this article’s purposes, we will refer to the process of a liquid cremation at “aquamation.”

Even though “aquamation” is a funny term, it describes the very serious process of breaking down the body’s tissues using water, heat, and alkaline chemicals. This process is based on the natural decay that a body undergoes when buried in the ground. Instead of taking hundreds (or thousands) of years, the body will decompose in less than a day. 

During aquamation, the body is placed in a watertight chamber. Almost 100 gallons of water are added as well as the alkaline chemicals. The chamber is slightly heated and sometimes agitated. The result is that all of the body’s soft tissue goes into the water. The bone fragments that remain are pulverized into a white, sand-like material. 

You may be wary of using new technology on your loved one’s remains. This is understandable. The choices we make for our loved one’s end-of-life are often based on emotion, traditions, and faith backgrounds. This isn’t a decision most people make based on economics or convenience. 

On the other hand, you may be intrigued by the idea of aquamation, especially if the idea of a crematorium bothers you. To help you make an educated choice between aquamation and cremation, let’s learn how both processes compare. 

1. Aquamation Is More Expensive Than Cremation

Aquamation systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because funeral homes are a business, they have to charge enough to pay for the equipment they use. For this reason, you may find that aquamation is more expensive than cremation. Of course, this may change if it gains in popularity across the country. 

But the cost may not differ as much as you would think. Although you may be able to pay as little as $800 for a direct cremation, the average cremation cost is still $1,600. The cost of aquamation may be as low as $2,000, but may not reach much higher than $3,000.

Burial continues to be the most expensive option, especially if the body is embalmed for an open-casket visitation. The family also needs to consider the costs of a cemetery plot (including a burial vault), casket, and headstone.

Once those factors are considered, aquamation is not as expensive as you would first think.

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2. Aquamation Is More Environmentally Friendly Than Cremation

To understand why aquamation is considered more environmentally friendly than cremation, one needs to understand a bit about the cremation process. Crematories use intense heat, between 1400 and 2100 degrees Fahrenheit, to break down the body’s tissues. It takes a significant amount of energy to raise temperatures that high. The process also releases harmful emissions into the environment. 

Aquamation uses one-seventh of the energy of traditional cremation, and no toxic gases are released into the environment. Because the process is completed at a lower heat, the mercury from dental fillings is not released into the air, but they are during cremation. 

3. Aquamation Ashes Look Different Than Cremation Ashes

Cremains are often described as gray, coarse sand. After the aquamation process is completed on a body, the family will receive a white, uniform powder.

The family will also receive more remains with the aquamation process than the cremation process. 

4. Cremation Is Available In All States, But Aquamation Is Not

Although the list changes frequently, aquamation is now available in the following states: Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Wyoming.

You may want to contact your local representative to see when aquamation will be discussed in your state’s legislature. 

5. Families Must Purchase a Temporary Casket for Cremation But Nothing for Aquamation

During aquamation, the body is stripped of all street clothes before being placed in the water chamber. Some facilities allow the family to purchase wool or silk burial shrouds if that is preferred. 

During the cremation process, the body is first placed in a combustible, heavy-duty cardboard container. The family must purchase this receptacle as a part of the process.

6. Aquamation Takes Longer than Cremation

A typical cremation can be completed in a couple of hours.

The aquamation process may last six to eight hours or as long as 18 to 20 hours, depending upon the amount of heat that is used in the process. 

7. Cremation Has Been Around Longer Than Aquamation

Even though cremation has been around for centuries in other parts of the world, it didn’t make its way to the United States until the late 1800s. The first aquamation facility opened in the US in 2011. 

8. Pacemakers Do Not Have to Be Removed Before Aquamation As They Are Before Cremation

Your loved one’s pacemaker may be the last thing on your mind after they die, but if your loved one has one, it is important to tell the funeral home. A pacemaker can explode during the cremation process, so it has to be removed beforehand. This may add to the cost of the cremation.

On the other hand, the pacemaker does not need to be removed for aquamation. 

9. Soft Tissues Are Released Into the Air During Cremation and Into Water During Aquamation

During cremation, the soft tissues are vaporized, oxidized, and released into the air through a venting process. The emissions are mainly carbon dioxide and water vapor and are harmless to the atmosphere unless the individual had fillings. Some fillings include mercury. When mercury is heated, it becomes a harmful gas, which can have a detrimental effect on the environment. 

During aquamation, the breakdown of the soft tissues goes into the water. Because the human is made up of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and a small percentage of other elements, the water is considered safe. It can return to the water treatment system. 

10. Families Need Larger Cremation Urns When Choosing Aquamation Over Cremation

As mentioned earlier, families receive between 20% and 30% more remains when a body undergoes aquamation rather than cremation. 

Here’s how to figure how big of urn you need for your loved one’s cremains. If your loved one weighed 200 pounds before death, you need 200 cubic inches of urn space, which is 13.9 cups. 

If you decide to use aquamation as a burial option, purchase an urn that would hold at least 18 cups. 

11. Some View Aquamation As Undignified But Cremation As Acceptable

People opposed to aquamation view it as undignified. They describe the process as “liquifying a body,” which some view as improper treatment of a human. This, of course, is a matter of opinion. 

Proponents of aquamation argue that the process is similar to direct cremation. Instead of heat removing the body’s soft tissues, water and natural chemicals do the work. The results are the same. Either way, bone fragments are left behind that are pulverized and returned to the family.

If you're looking for something small to keep your loved one close by, companies like Parting Stone create beautiful, handheld cremation stones.

Many people do not trust new methods or technologies. Thankfully for those people, the traditional way of burial is still an option. 

12. Some Are More Comfortable With Aquamation Than Cremation

When you think of the word “crematorium” you envision a large furnace with lapping flames. This image, which is an accurate description, may make some people uncomfortable. In fact, some people may choose not to be cremated because they are afraid of fire.

Aquamation appeals to those individuals. Some people see the process as gentler since the body is enclosed in a tank of water. 

Make Your Desires Known

Most people, when thinking of end-of-life options, do not yet consider aquamation. Instead, they believe that the two primary choices are cremation and burial. If you died tomorrow, your family members would probably choose one of the two. 

Are you intrigued by the idea of aquamation and want to add it to your burial plan? If so, you need to make your desires known. Create an end-of-life plan that includes your choice of flowers and music for your funeral, where you would like your remains to be buried or scattered, and that you prefer aquamation rather than cremation.

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