For years, consumers have considered cremation an environmentally friendly form of final disposition for loved ones’ remains, in comparison to traditional earth burial. Critics say that chemicals used in the embalming process, and caskets and outer burial containers, may be harmful to the environment as they are deteriorating in the ground. So cremation has been accepted as a simple, inexpensive and environmentally-conscious method of final disposition.
(Video courtesy of Matthews Cremation)
But the traditional cremation process may not be so eco-friendly after all. Cremation is the reduction of the human body to ash, or cremated remains, in a cremation retort or chamber that reaches temperatures of 1,400-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The remaining bone fragments and ash are then pulverized into tiny pieces, placed in a cremation urn, and returned to the family. The concern is that crematories emit toxic chemicals that include carbon monoxide, embalming agents (such as formaldehyde), and mercury found in dental fillings and medical implants. These chemicals are known to be associated with global warming and climate change. Another concern is the use of natural gas, a non-renewable resource.
There are some green cemeteries that will not allow inurnment of cremated remains because the “green model” was not followed.
With the United States cremation rate at more than 50%, funeral providers are researching even more alternative methods for a “greener” cremation. One of the newest and most green-efficient methods of cremation is bio-cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis. This process uses water, potassium hydroxide, relatively low heat (177° Celsius, 350° Fahrenheit), and pressure to reduce the body to bone fragments and an inert liquid.
The remaining bones are pulverized (similar to traditional cremation), placed in an urn or container, and returned to the family. The liquid that remains is disposed of. The entire process takes approximately 10-12 hours. Alkaline hydrolysis uses much less energy, does not release mercury into the atmosphere, and there is no concern for carbon emissions.
Several states have legalized alkaline hydrolysis, but others are still uncertain with this new form of disposition. Some states are concerned with the process of draining the remains. Another concern is the cost for the alkaline hydrolysis equipment; it can be much more expensive than traditional cremation.
In the long term, each method of disposition is the same: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The cremation method uses heat and air, while the alkaline hydrolysis method uses heat, pressure, and a water/potassium solution; burial uses the elements found in the soil.