End of Life Planning

1/10/2022 | By Seniors Guide Staff

When South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu died recently at the age of 90, it was revealed he had requested that his body undergo “aquamation” rather than cremation because it’s more environmentally friendly. It was the first time many had ever heard of this relatively new process, so it raised questions about aquamation and eco-friendly burial.

Also known as green cremation, water cremation, and bio cremation, aquamation’s scientific term is alkaline hydrolysis, and currently it is legal in 20 states. However, those numbers will likely increase in the future as the eco-friendly burial practices gain popularity.

What is the green burial trend, and why would someone choose it over more traditional methods?

What is aquamation?

Aquamation is a process for disposing of a deceased body that combines heated water with an alkali solution in a pressurized chamber, after which the bones are dried in an oven to dusty ashes. Its objective is to mimic the organic decomposition that occurs with ground burials.

Processes vary, but a typical aquamation involves the following steps:

  • The body is placed inside a pressurized stainless-steel chamber.
  • A solution of water (95%) and alkali (5%) is added to the chamber.
  • The liquid is circulated and heated to between 200 and 300 degrees F (the fluid does not boil because it’s in a pressurized chamber).
  • After about four hours, the body’s tissues will have dissolved into a liquid.
  • The liquid is recycled through a typical wastewater treatment plant.
  • Bone fragments and any medical implants, such as joint replacements and pacemakers, remain in the chamber.
  • The bones are dried and put through a cremulator, which crushes them into a coarse powder that can be provided to the family.

Why do people choose aquamation and eco-friendly burial methods?

Archbishop Tutu requested a no-frills funeral and, as an advocate of environmentalism, an eco-friendly cremation. He once called climate change among the “greatest moral challenges of our time,” The Washington Post explains. “He advocated for boycotts of oil and fossil fuel-producing firms and called for greater investment in clean energy and low-carbon products.”

Many others who choose aquamation and eco-friendly burial also champion environmental causes. They don’t want their burial to contribute to Earth’s climate problem. Aquamation creates no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases or mercury in the atmosphere, does not burn fossil fuels, and is very energy efficient. It has 1/10 the carbon footprint and uses 85% less energy than cremation; there are fewer air emissions, and those that do exist are non-mercury based.

Related: Host a celebration of life

Some people choose aquamation because they do not like the idea of their remains being burned to ash, while others may want to be at the forefront of technology. Whatever the reason for choosing it, it’s likely to stick around.

How does the cost of aquamation compare with other methods?

The cost of aquamation services is comparable to the cost of cremation. Both are significantly less costly than burial, which includes embalming as well as viewing, cemetery burial or entombing, cemetery plot, headstones and grave markers, and so on.

Other eco-friendly options for your body

While Archbishop Tutu’s death shone a spotlight on aquamation, there are other environmentally friendly ways to manage human remains. Other green burial practices include:

  • Body farms: You can donate your body to one of these “farms” for further research
  • Mushroom burial suits: Mushroom-lined “pajamas” devour dead human tissue
  • Sky burial: The corpse is taken ceremonially to a specified area, often elevated, to be consumed by scavengers such as vultures. Buddhists who practice sky burial do so in order that the soul-less body can be of use to other creatures.
  • Green burial: The corpse, without embalming, is placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud to allow it to decompose naturally.
  • Burial at sea: Certain areas off the U.S. coast allows bodies to be wrapped in natural shrouds and released to the sea.
  • Composting: The body is placed in a vessel with microbes and organic materials (such as straw and wood chips), hastening decomposition.

Related: Announcing a death on Facebook

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff