For those who find the idea of traditional cremation or burial unsettling, a novel funeral choice is set to become available: water cremation.
This innovative process involves dissolving a body in a bag immersed in 160°C water treated with an alkali. Scheduled to launch in the UK later this year, this method is the first new legal means of disposing of cadavers since the Cremation Act of 1902, earning it the nickname “boil in the bag” funeral.
Water cremation, also known as resomation, aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis, has already gained acceptance in the majority of US states, Canada, and South Africa, where it was chosen for the funeral of the esteemed Archbishop Desmond Tutu. While it is already legal in the UK, it has only undergone limited trials focused on assessing the safety of releasing the resulting solution into the drainage system.
One of the key advantages of water cremation is its reduced carbon footprint, estimated to be approximately half that of traditional gas-fired cremation. The process leaves behind only bones, which are then transformed into a powdered form, similar to traditional cremation, and returned to the family.
Supporters of water cremation praise its gentler impact on the body and its kinder approach to the environment. Co-op Funeralcare, the UK’s largest undertaker, plans to offer this option in the north-east of England, where Julian Atkinson, a former coffin maker, has set up the required equipment.
Northumbrian Water has already granted approval for the treated water resulting from the process to be discharged back into the drainage network as “trade effluent,” similar to permits used by launderettes. This endorsement further solidifies the method’s viability and eco-friendliness.
“We are satisfied the disposal will have no impact on our wastewater treatment processes,” the water company said.
Polling data reveals that water cremation remains relatively unknown to the British public, with almost no prior awareness of the practice. However, once people learn about it, just under a third (29%) express a willingness to choose this method for their own funeral if it were available.
“By starting to make resomation available in the UK, Co-op will be providing people with another option for how they leave this world because this natural process uses water, not fire, making it gentler on the body and kinder on the environment,” said Atkinson. “We are encouraged to see that many members of the public are conscious of reducing the carbon footprint, even after death.”
Traditional cremation processes have been found to release a substantial amount of carbon, with a UK annual impact equivalent to powering 65,000 households. In contrast, water cremation offers a more environmentally responsible alternative, significantly reducing the carbon output.
“The UK has a history of innovation when it comes to compassionately, practically and hygienically managing the disposal of bodies after death,” said Prof Douglas Davies at the department of theology and religion at Durham University. “Cremation grew in popularity throughout the 20th century and overtook burial in the 1960s as the preferred method of disposal for people.”
The new practice appeared in the 2019 Russell T Davies BBC TV miniseries Years and Years, which featured a scene in an ”aquatorium”.
“Boil in the bag. Like sous-vide,” explains one mourner to another. “You get flushed. Down the drain. Out to sea. The end.”
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