There’s an opinion column in today’s Roanoke Times titled “Flush and bone: the future of alkaline hydrolysis in Virginia.” It was written by Phil Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech.
Not only does he provide a great overview of state laws regarding the use of this emerging disposition method, he describes how it works and its environmental benefits.
Here are a few paragraphs from his opinion piece:
Setting legal and classification matters aside, proponents of alkaline hydrolysis claim that this process is more eco-friendly than either cremation or earth burial. We humans consume a lot of resources in life, but we consume a lot in death, too.
Cemeteries are perhaps the most conspicuous signs of our post-mortem consumption. Beneath the untold acres of land that we Virginians reserve for our dead are buried thousands of tons of hardwood, steel, copper and reinforced concrete, as well as thousands of gallons of embalming fluid. Cremated remains occupy much less land than embalmed bodies, and cremated remains do not leech formaldehyde into the ground.
According to advocates, alkaline hydrolysis is far more eco-friendly than cremation because it uses 1/20 the energy of cremation, yields no greenhouse gas and particle emissions, and eliminates airborne mercury emissions that result from the incineration of dental fillings. Take note, however, that alkaline hydrolysis equipment is powered by electricity that is often generated by coal-burning plants, which are themselves a leading source of eco-unfriendly emissions, including mercury emissions. Solar- or wind-powered sources of electricity would make alkaline hydrolysis greener still.
Critics view alkaline hydrolysis as an “icky” and undignified way to dispose of human remains. Would you want your loved one liquefied and then flushed down the drain? Some oppose alkaline hydrolysis for religious reasons. For example, the New York Catholic Conference has opposed a bill that would legalize alkaline hydrolysis in New York, urging that the process does not show respect or reverence for the sacredness of the human body. The Catholic Church forbade cremation until 1963, when the Second Vatican Council approved it as an acceptable form of disposition, provided that the motives for choosing cremation do not conflict with Catholic doctrine.
But Catholics are not of one mind regarding the morality of alkaline hydrolysis. In a 2008 article published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Sister Renee Mirkes concludes that “alkaline hydrolysis is, in and of itself, a morally neutral action,” and that it is on par with cremation from the point of view of Catholic teachings.
This is an issue that will continue to grow in the funeral industry.