Comparing Cremation and Alkaline Hydrolysis

Nov 14, 2012 | 2 comments

Jeff Edwards and Alkaline Hydrolysis machine

Jeff Edwards and a low pressure alkaline hydrolysis unit

“A clean green process” is how Jeff Edwards of Edwards Funeral Services describes Aquamation, his term for alkaline hydrolysis. In the YouTube video below, he shows his unit and explains how it is used for human bodies.

Edwards is a funeral industry pioneer in the use alkaline hydrolysis for the disposition of bodies. He started offering it at his funeral home in Columbus, Ohio at the beginning of 2011 as an alternative to flame-based cremation.

Edwards had used the process on 19 bodies and was about to perform his 20th when state officials declared that alkaline hydrolysis “is not an authorized form of disposition of a dead human body.” This brought everything to a screeching halt. Ohio law currently only recognizes burial or cremation as an allowable disposition method for a burial permit.

“They did not tell me to stop doing it,” Edwards said of the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors and the Ohio Department of Health. “The fact I cannot get a (burial) permit effectively means I cannot do it.”

In March 2011, the Health Department said alkaline hydrolysis is not an approved disposition method. Edwards sued. The courts failed to rule on the actions of the Health Department, so it fell to the Ohio legislature to make changes.

The Ohio Funeral Directors Association posted a legislative update online. H.B. 481, a bill related to regulation of funeral services, minus alkaline hydrolysis licensure language, passed the house in May and was awaiting Senate action during the lame duck session, which starts today.

The legislative session ends at the end of this December and any legislation that is not passed by the Legislature by the end of the year dies. So, it looks as if there may be no further progress made on deciding if alkaline hydrolysis can be used as a disposition method in the state of Ohio.

According to a Huffington Post article from June 2011, alkaline hydrolysis is allowed in Kansas, Maryland and Colorado, and is already legal in Florida, Maine, Minnesota and Oregon. The Anderson-McQueen funeral home in St. Petersburg, Florida offers the service, as does the Riposta Funeral Home in Belfast, Maine.

New York and California also are considering allowing use of alkaline hydrolysis. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and the University of Florida use it for human cadavers, and it’s been used for two decades on animal carcasses.

Comparing the two processes

Jeff Edwards and cremation retort

Jeff Edwards and cremation retort

I visited Edwards’ facility earlier this year. He has both a natural gas cremation retort and an alkaline hydrolysis unit housed in a low-key industrial area. He explained how each process works in the two videos below.

Bodies are weighed to estimate with accuracy how much sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide is needed for alkaline hydrolysis. With a raised temperature and pressure in the tank, the body will naturally hydrolyze, or decompose, very rapidly.

“This is the same process that Mother Nature performs in the ground, aided by the bacteria in the soil and the alkalinity of the soil,” explains Edwards. “It doesn’t use nearly as much energy as a crematory or nearly as much energy or resources as the high pressure, high temperature versions of the alkaline hydrolysis equipment, but you give up speed. This particular vessel has about an 8-hour turnaround time.”

Edwards predicts alkaline hydrolysis will replace cremation in 20 to 25 years. It’s a very simple system and has a minimal environmental impact that can actually improve existing municipal waste treatment systems.

Edwards advised the Reposta Funeral Home in Maine on the installation of their alkaline hydrolysis system. They later told Edwards that the folks at the sewage treatment plant called to say, “What’s going on there?” The excess sludge that the municipality had to pay others to clear out had disappeared, thanks to the acceleration of decomposition caused by the alkaline hydrolysis effluent. It was actually saving the town money as well as reducing the sewage treatment load.

In the meantime, Edwards continues to offer flame-based cremation. He has a highly energy efficient retort that cost $80,000, compared to the $150,000 cost of the alkaline hydrolysis unit. The retort runs at temperatures between 1,550 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit during a cremation.

Flame-based cremation is a much faster process. Some retorts can handle 8 to 12 bodies in a 24-hour period. However, natural gas retorts generate an average of 532 pounds of CO2, greenhouse gas emissions, per body. And surprisingly, the smaller the body, the more gas is needed to cremate. Larger bodies with greater stores of fat provide more fuel to the fire.

Edwards charged families the same base price for an alkaline hydrolysis disposition as for a direct cremation: $695. The question remains if he’ll get to start offering Aquamation again any time in the near future.

Check out the video tours of his cremation retort and alkaline hydrolysis units below. Which approach appeals more to you?

Cremation retort tour:

Cremation Retort Tour

Alkaline hydrolysis unit tour:

Alkaline Hydrolysis Unit Tour
A Good Goodbye