For anyone uncomfortable with the thought of their body being consumed by flames or buried in a grave crawling with insects, a new funeral choice is about to become available: water cremation.
The process of dissolving a body in a bag in 160C water treated with an alkali will be available in the UK from this week – the first new legal method of disposing of dead bodies since the the 1902 cremation. It was described as a “boil in the sack” funeral.
The practice is legal in the majority of US states, Canada and South Africa, where it was chosen for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died last year. It is also legal in the UK, but has only been used in limited trials to test whether the resulting solution can be safely discharged into the drainage system.
With a carbon footprint said to be around half that of gas cremation, the process leaves only bones, which are then ground to powder and returned to the family in the same way as cremated ashes.
Advocates describe it as ‘gentler on the body and kinder to the environment’ and Co-op Funeralcare, the UK’s largest undertaker, will start offering it in the North East of England , where a former coffin maker, Julian Atkinson, settled. the required equipment.
Northumbrian Water has granted approval for the resulting water to be returned to the drainage system as ‘commercial effluent’, the same permit used by laundromats.
“We are confident that the disposal will have no impact on our wastewater treatment processes,” the water company said.
A poll found that hardly anyone among the UK public had heard of the practice, but once explained just under a third (29%) said they would choose the method – also known as of resomation, aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis – for their own funerals if they were available.
“By starting to make resuscitation available in the UK, Co-op will give people another option on how they leave this world, as this natural process uses water, not fire, which makes it more gentle on the body and kinder to the environment,” says Atkinson. “We are encouraged to see that many members of the public are aware of reducing the carbon footprint, even after death.”
A typical cremation releases 245kg of carbon, creating an annual impact in the UK of 115,150 tonnes, according to CDS Group, a crematorium consultancy. This is equivalent to the electricity needed to power 65,000 homes.
Funerals would normally take place with the body in a coffin but for water cremation it would be wrapped in a woolen shroud and placed in a cornstarch ‘organic pouch’. This would then be placed in a sealed chamber with 95% water and the remainder potassium hydroxide and heated to around 160°C. After four hours, all but the skeleton would be dissolved.
After testing in 2020, Yorkshire Water allowed the solution to be discharged into the regular drainage system after analysis revealed there was no risk and no DNA was found in the samples . The solution is modified to balance its PH before being discharged “in time to return to the natural water cycle”, the cooperative said.
“The UK has a history of innovation in the compassionate, practical and hygienic management of the disposal of bodies after death,” said Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion. . “Cremation grew in popularity throughout the 20th century and overtook burial in the 1960s as people’s preferred method of disposal.”
The new practice appeared in the 2019 BBC Russell T Davies TV miniseries Years and Years, which featured a scene in an “aquatorium”.
“Boil in the bag. Like sous-vide,” one mourner explains to another. “You are red. In the sink. To the sea. The end.”