“Cremation” In Water: A Premortem Follow-Up

Our podcast hasn’t really talked about how the body of the deceased is handled because all interviewees have only had experiences with cremation and burial. Going along with our podcast’s exploration of the diversity in how people treat death, and because the body is inseparable to the topic of death, I’d like to explore some alternatives to burial and cremation to give you more information on what we can choose to do with our body after we die.

One option is body donation. A few months ago, our class discussed a class reading named Let the Dead Teach the Living: the Rise of Body Bequeathal in 20th-Century America. We learned that body donation gained popularity after it became associated with helping the advancement of science, medicine, and saving lives. However, some people have religious beliefs that emphasize keeping the body intact, or they just personally don’t feel comfortable with having their body dissected. At the same time, they might not want to be cremated, perhaps for environmental reasons, or be buried, perhaps for the costs of burial and land space. What alternatives are there?

According to a New York Times article, one such alternative is alkaline hydrolysis, a process often referred to as aquamation or flameless cremation. In this process, the body’s placed inside a machine filled with an alkali solution that dissolves the body’s proteins and fats, “leaving only a coffee‐colored liquid, powdery bone and any metal implants, like dental fillings.” To learn more, the author interviewed 6 people with different levels of involvement with the method, including an assemblyman who sponsored a bill for it, an aquamation machine manufacturer, two funeral directors, a pet crematory manager and a customer who chose it. The author got most of his statistical data from the interviews.

The author found that the method has many advantages over cremation: it is cheaper, uses less energy, leaves a smaller carbon footprint and emits no fumes. The liquids emitted from the process also contain nutrients that can be used as fertilizer. Moreover, to the grieving family, the idea of a body fading into ashes in water looks and feels more gentle than cremation. Because of these benefits, aquamation is gaining popularity in the US and is even hailed as the method of the future.

However, we don’t know if it’s compatible with or if it can be adapted to different cultural beliefs. The class reading documented cultural shifts that needed to happen before body donation was seen as acceptable enough to be a good option, and the podcast showed that every detail of a funeral comes from deeply-held traditional beliefs. Therefore, what connotations would the dissolution of the body in liquid and its products have? Would aquamation fit into or change cultural narratives on death, and how? And like how the kotsuage custom emerged from cremation’s integration into Japanese society, if aquamation becomes an established practice, what aquamation traditions, if any, would emerge in the future to help us grieve?


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Bromwich, Jonah E. 2017. An Alternative to Burial and Cremation Gains Popularity. New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/19/business/flameless-cremation.html)

Cremation Association of North America. 2018. “Alkaline Hydrolysis.” Cremationassociation.org. Retrieved December 13, 2018 (https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/alkalinehydrolysis).

Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota. 2018. “Alkaline Hydrolysis: GreenCremation.” Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota. Retrieved December 13, 2018 (http://fcaofmn.org/alkaline-hydrolysis-green-cremation.html).

Garment, Ann, Susan Lederer, Naomi Rogers, and Lisa Boult. 2007. “Let The Dead Teach The Living: The Rise Of Body Bequeathal In 20Th-Century America.” Academic Medicine82(10):1000-1005.

Olson, Philip R. 2014. “Flush And Bone.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 39(5):666-693.

Pubchem Open Ministry Database. 2018. “PotassiumHydroxide.” Pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved December 13, 2018(https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/potassium_hydroxide#section=Pharmacology-and-Biochemistry).

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