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Climate-Friendly Cremation? You First...

5 years ago
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When President Obama joins leaders of 191 other countries at the Copenhagen climate summit this month, he will be bringing with him a number of proposals to try to limit man-made emissions of heat-trapping gases.

In light of a declining urgency on the issue in the United States, the "Climategate" e-mail hacking scandal, and the inherent difficulty of getting an international conference to agree on much of anything, all one can say to the president is, "Good luck with that."

But for those who remain concerned about climate change and greenhouse gases, there is something new you can try to reduce your carbon footprint -- and the rest of you, in fact: It's called "green cremation."

That's the nifty term for a process of disposing of corpses that is formally known as alkaline hydrolysis. A body is placed inside a vault-like tube (after being wrapped in a silk bag, which is nice) and the chamber is then sealed, filled with water and lye, and steam-heated to 300 degrees. After three hours, all that's left are crumbly bone fragments (to bury in an urn or scatter) and 200 gallons of fluid with a ph level that has been described as "somewhere between hand-soap and ammonia."

The beauty of this process -- if "beauty" is how you'd want to describe such a thing -- is that the resulting fluids can be sent into the sewer system like Saturday night's bath water, or even spread on fields or gardens. (Yes, that's a frequent recommendation.) No sooty emissions, either, and the process uses 80 percent less energy than standard cremation.

Now this may not be one of the proposals Obama is bringing to Copenhagen. But the pollution reductions aren't negligible, either, given that a standard crematory furnace must fire at nearly 2,000 degrees for up to four hours. According to the data, that uses more than 3,000 cubic feet of natural gas and releases 900 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. Standard burial is arguably not much better. It can take a century for an embalmed body and casket to decompose, and as it does all that formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is released into the soil and groundwater.

Recognizing an opportunity when they see it, a Scottish company has rebranded the alkaline hydrolysis process as "Resomation" (a coinage from the Greek meaning rebirth of the body) and created a machine called a "Resomator" to take care of it all -- no muss, no fuss. "Resomation is an environmentally beneficial alternative to cremation and is both dignified and respectful. It has been developed in response to increasing environmental awareness and concern," says the Web site of Resomation Ltd.

If all this tends to activate your "yuck" reflex, then it may be worth remembering that Resomation is really a lot like the natural process of decomposition, only speeded up. Remember the James ossuary of a few years back? The limestone bone-box whose inscription allegedly identified the contents as those of James, brother of Jesus, caused a furor with the possibility (still unresolved) that Jesus actually had a sibling. But it also taught the public that laying a corpse in a tomb -- as was done with Jesus after the crucifixion -- and leaving it for a year to decompose before storing the bones in a small stone box was standard practice in first century Judaism.

Moreover, disposing of bodies is never pretty business, and Americans in particular have been willing to pay all kinds of fees to the death industry to keep the whole business as antiseptic as possible.

Embalming only became widespread after the Civil War, and cremation is now booming. Nearly one-third of all corpses will be cremated this year in the United States, a sharp jump from a few decades ago, with the number expected to top 50 percent by 2025. The reasons are obvious: cemetery space is increasingly scarce and expensive or distant from cities and suburbs. And as people retire to sunny climes far away from their families, the expense of flying a corpse back home for a funeral can be sharply cut by cremating and express mailing an urn of ashes. Cremation is appealing to many people as they can avoid dealing with bodies and spread a loved one's ashes at a favorite spot, which is also becoming an increasingly popular ritual.

Still, many religious traditions either reject cremation altogether -- Judaism and Islam, most notably -- or frown on scattering ashes as a sign of disrespect for the body that housed a soul. (Hence the growth of columbariums, or funeral niches, where people can house an urn in a respectful manner and in a sacred space associated with their religious tradition.)

But Resomation seems to answer some of the religious qualms and already has some religious groups pondering the process.

Catholic ethicist Sr. Renée Mirkes, director of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., wrote last year in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly that there is no moral problem about using alkaline hydrolysis.

"Sometimes the yuck factor puts us in touch with a very important, reasonable objection," Mirkes told The Catholic Register, a national weekly in Canada. "But that particular reaction, I think, is just natural, normal and doesn't necessarily carry any moral weight." As Mirkes noted, alkaline hydrolysis merely speeds up the natural process of decomposition. "The way we dispose of a human corpse takes its essential moral character from the motive or intention for which the particular dispositional method is chosen," Mirkes wrote in her paper.

Before alkaline hydrolysis can make any dent in our carbon emissions, however, the folks at Resomation Ltd. have a lot of lobbying to do.

For one thing, "green burials"-- in which a body is buried in a simple wood or even wicker casket without embalming -- is the hot trend with the enviro-friendly public today, and perhaps less polluting than alkaline hydrolysis. And the funeral industry (and state regulators) have not rushed to embrace Resomation, though the company is hopeful of cracking the North American market and has a distributor ready in the U.S. and Canada.

Last year, New Hampshire pulled back from a preliminary approval for a Manchester funeral home to operate a Resomator, which would have been the first commercial funeral home in the United States to do so. That leaves the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota as the only owner and operator of a Resomator, which it uses to dispose of bodies donated for research. "Ashes can be easily recovered for burial in the Mayo Vault at the Oakwood Cemetery or returned to the family if requested," the clinic says.

But perhaps a bigger hurdle is convincing the American public of the reality of global warming. According to a Harris poll, belief in global warming has slipped to the lowest point in 12 years. Just 51 percent of adults believe greenhouse gases will warm the Earth's average temperature, down from 71 percent just two years ago.

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