When you die, your body is going to decompose.
It starts from the moment you pass. Your organs begin to shut down. Hair stops growing, skin recedes. Some parts of the body take longer than others, but eventually, as with all things, it all starts to break down.
If you opt for a traditional burial, your remains will spend years nestled within a casket underground, progressing into a deeper state of decomposition. If you opt for a traditional flame-based cremation, you eliminate any further decomposition by burning it to a halt.
But there’s also another alternative — one designed to accelerate the decomposition process through the medium of water. It’s known as alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation. One part spa, one part chemical blend, a few hours of a swirling soak, and your earthly remains are no longer.
“It’s basic chemistry,” explains Anas Ghadouani, leader of the research group Aquatic Ecology and Ecosystem Studies. “You have organic matter and you add a base to it and it just decomposes. You can write the equation to it. It’s very simple.”
Despite this, alkaline hydrolysis remains one of the most divisive and misunderstood practices in contemporary funeral technology.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a form of cremation that uses water and chemicals to break down the human body to its bare minimum. Salts, amino acids, peptides. Like flame-based cremation, it produces ash that can be taken home. Unlike flame-based cremation, it’s illegal for use on human bodies in almost 30 states in America.
The concept itself isn’t new. Amos Herbert Hobson of Middlesex, England, patented the first alkaline hydrolysis machine all the way back in 1888. He used it to dispose of animal carcasses.
In the century and a half since, the technology has evolved, and it has the potential to shake up the death industry.
The process is straightforward. Bodies are placed in a machine containing a chemical mixture of water and alkali. The mixture is then heated and cycled. Over the course of hours, the body is accelerated through its natural decomposition process, resulting in a residual liquid made up of amino acids, peptides, salt, soap and bones — the last of which is broken down into white ash.
Joseph Wilson, now founder and CEO of leading alkaline hydrolysis manufacturer Bio-Response Solutions, helped design the first commercial-use human alkaline hydrolysis unit in 2005.
“I was stunned that there was a way to dispose of tissue without burning,” said Wilson. “You don’t have any external pumps or tanks or chemicals. It’s all there at the machine.”
There are undeniable benefits to this process. In 2011, a study from the University of Groningen compared conventional burial, cremation, alkaline hydrolysis and cryomation and found that alkaline hydrolysis had the lowest overall environmental footprint.
The low temperature also means pacemakers and joint replacements can remain inside the body. In flame-based cremation, these are extracted to prevent a reaction — pacemakers, especially, are incredibly volatile when subjected to extreme heat.
Yet despite the fact that flame-based cremation subjects the remains to intense fire, alkaline hydrolysis is seen as the more graphic option for potential funerals, when both are just as valid. Legal roadblocks and cultural concerns have plagued water cremation since its inception.
And there’s a simple reason for that: Alkaline hydrolysis has a reputation shaped by years of misrepresentation. Nobody wants to feel like they’re disrespecting their loved ones.
Media, morals and the mafia
Most people’s first experience of alkaline hydrolysis is through popular culture.
In the second episode of Breaking Bad, audiences sees drug dealer Jesse Pinkman dissolve a dead body in his apartment’s bathtub using hydrofluoric acid he’d sourced from his high school’s chemical stores. He returns the next day only to find the acid had eaten through the bathtub itself and floorboards beneath, before finally falling through to the floor below.
Despite the effective cinematics, Breaking Bad is far from realistic. Hydrofluoric acid, while highly corrosive, doesn’t have the capacity to completely liquefy remains overnight — it’s at the wrong end of the pH scale. It certainly doesn’t have the capacity to eat through a bath and the floor.
Even if it could, the science doesn’t check out — Mythbusters proved it.
Whether it’s a question of gulping down Soylent Green or shunting bodies into acid barrels, television and film haven’t been kind to the practice of alkaline hydrolysis.
Outside of television, urban legends have tarred alkaline hydrolysis with further negativity. In 2011, researchers had to debunk claims the Sicilian mafia disposed of human remains in a process called lupara bianca, or white shotgun. Just like in Breaking Bad, the mafia supposedly used acid — an entirely different, cruder chemical process.
Mafia urban legends and shows like Breaking Bad create a sense of violence surrounding water cremation that simply doesn’t hold up. Water cremation, at its core, is no more than the acceleration of a natural process.
The reality: As with almost all aspects of the death industry, there is a level of respect and dignity. You don’t see what happens in the retort of a flame-based cremator, but you won’t see what happens inside an alkaline hydrolysis machine either.
What remains to be dealt with, however, is what comes out the other side. Ashes are one thing — you can pop them on the mantle in a decorative urn, sprinkle them at sea or even have them launched into space — but what about the residual liquid?
One of the biggest roadblocks to the acceptance of alkaline hydrolysis technology is the issue of wastewater. Because of its association with death, the liquid is perceived as too unsanitary to be processed normally. Say it goes through the same recycling plants that supply residential areas, the idea of drinking the essence of a dead body sounds abhorrent. It’s hard enough swallowing the idea of recycled sewage water. Remains? Inconceivable.
But technology already exists to tackle almost any kind of wastewater.
Sewage water is filtered for reuse in municipal treatment plants. Organic material is broken down in anaerobic digesters, which convert the material into methane or “biogas.” Specially designed ultrafiltration systems can even tackle aqueous nuclear waste.
“Any liquid waste that we have, we can deal with,” says Ghadouani.
Yet in Australia, residual liquid from water cremation isn’t permitted to be treated via the municipal water treatment facilities or digesters. More worryingly, there’s a disconnect here — and it’s one that, for the most part, is behind the closed doors of the funeral industry.
“One of the most common things the public doesn’t know,” says leading US thanatologist and death educator Cole Imperi, “is that when someone is embalmed, all the blood that comes out of your body, where does that go? It goes down the drain.”
In fact, almost all the human waste that comes from hospitals and funeral homes as a result of the embalming process is permitted to be processed through these official channels.
“So if you’re allowing byproducts from funeral homes to go into the municipal water system for treatment, why are you discriminating against one particular disposition method?” Imperi asks. “It’s an interesting kind of cognitive dissonance.”
Nevertheless, in the few states that allow alkaline hydrolysis — for animals — practicing venues must provide their own wastewater filtration treatments and submit them for regular testing. It’s expensive and demanding. Venues are scarce.
Jonathan Hopkins, owner and operator of Resting Pets Cremations in New South Wales, Australia, is an alkaline hydrolysis advocate. He and his late wife opened their practice after the pain of a family pet’s death opened their eyes to the process as a cremation alternative.
“My wife was always an animal lover and she just had a really bad experience with the [cremation] company that was serving this area,” he said. “So we approached the local council for a pet cremation system.” They landed on alkaline hydrolysis.
To ensure the wastewater passed council and environmental regulations, Hopkins created his own treatment system. He began by increasing the machine’s existing filtration capacity, with any overflow going into a separate tank. Here, microorganisms remove any remaining bacteria — much like a septic system.
“With our system, they can see what chemicals are going in, and they can see the effluent coming out. They can test it, they know where it’s going,” he said.
Reframing the narrative
Some will always struggle with the concept of alkaline hydrolysis. Certain cultures or religions might always register a stronger connection to conventional burial and cremation methods.
But our human instinct to process death isn’t incompatible with water cremation. We could use residual liquid from the hydrolysis process to help nurture the earth. A gardener, for example, could live on in the plants and flowers they once nurtured.
Conceptually, it’s not out of the question. “If the liquid waste stream were to be applied to soil as a fertilizer, there could be a role for this as a soil improver.” explains Michael Short, a senior research fellow of the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia.
On a larger scale, this could even benefit the wider agricultural industry.
“The wastewater stream [would be] a relatively high strength organic waste solution,” Short says. “Soils in some Australian regions are generally low in natural organic matter, so adding organics from such waste streams could help to improve overall soil quality and soil carbon stocks.”
It may sound strange on first pass, but why not? If it gives someone peace of mind that our loved ones will “live on,” the transmutation of alkaline hydrolysis liquid to fertilizer may just be the PR dream the technology has been waiting for.
Alkaline hydrolysis may not be accepted anytime soon. It may take years of building up a more positive association. Maybe even decades.
It all comes down to whether states and countries are willing to test the waters.
This story is part of CNET’s The Future of Funerals series. Stay tuned this week for more.