I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about green death – and what I’d like done with my remains when I die. The idea of being eaten by vultures or other wild animals has always held some appeal. But I’ve recently come across a more practical alternative – that’s pretty environmentally friendly too.
My main objective is to turn my body into nutrients as fast as possible – with a minimal amount of packaging and emissions. But it takes quite a lot to get our bodies to become mulch. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ is not strictly accurate as it takes at least 75 years for a body in a coffin to rot – and in some soil conditions the corpse may still be in tact a century later. Given that we’re running out of burial space, this is a bit of an issue.
In crematoria bodies do turn to ashes quite speedily. But the problem with this is that it can be a pretty polluting process. In the past the big issue was the PVC linings used in coffins, but this isn’t allowed any more. Now mercury emissions from tooth fillings and dioxins are a big headache. Apparently, at least 11 per cent of the mercury contamination of North Sea fish comes from crematoria and this could escalate to nearly a third within the next decade, because of the huge increase in the number of fillings in today’s older generations.
Another problem with crematoria is carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change. The average body weighs 67 kilos and this produces about 44 kilos of CO2. Another 50 kilos of CO2 is produced from the fuel used in cremation – although fatter people produce less because their fat helps the burning – and another 83 kilos of CO2 is emitted from burning a wooden coffin. If everyone who died in the UK went through this process it would result in well over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 every year, which is the equivalent of taking a return flight to Australia 30,000 times.
But a new process known as ‘Resomation’ using water rather than fire, could well replace cremation in the next decade. With one quarter of the carbon footprint and no mercury pollution, ‘bio-cremation’ as it’s sometimes called, sounds rather appealing.
The idea is to dissolve bodies in a watery alkaline solution using potassium hydroxide, which is like low sodium salt. Whereas cremation is burning or boiling a body, this process is an accelerated version of natural decomposition using heat and chemistry. And rather surprisingly, the 400 litres of water used in the process can be disposed of down the drain – that’s what is being done in Minnesota, where the first system has been installed. And that’s the plan too for Florida and Toronto, who will be installing resomation systems shortly.
The process takes about two and half hours compared to roughly one and half hours for cremation. At the end of this the bones have become soft and can be easily made into a fine white powder. After cremation the bones and other remains have to be put into a cremulator, which is like a heavy-duty magimix. It takes about half an hour to grind them down to the ashes that relatives are presented with.
Another rather significant benefit from resomation is that if you have any gold teeth or artificial hip joints, they will come out looking shiny and new – and can be used again. This might appear to be rather distasteful but given that as a society we accept the idea of re-using other people’s organs, I can’t see that this would be any worse.
One thing that’s always annoyed me about crematoria is that coffins are burnt along with the dead bodies. The main reason for this is that the crematoria are designed in such a way that they need a stiff board underneath the body to manoeuvre it into the furnace.
The Resomation process requires the body to be contained in wool or silk, rather than wood. But it was recognised that funeral operators and relatives don’t generally like to see the shape of dead bodies when they’re being moved. So they’ve designed a metal frame to hold the bodies. These can be put into the dissolving liquid – and then used many times over. With a re-usable wooden transport casket, the whole ceremony can be made to look pretty similar to a standard cremation.
Given that resomation has such good green credentials and has been given the thumbs up by the funeral industry, you may wonder why it’s not yet available in the UK. Particularly since the first of these British made units are already being installed in the US, with many others planned.
The reason for the delay here appears to be a log-jam at the Ministry of Justice. Technically, Resomation is legal by virtue of the fact that it is not actually illegal. But in reality it would be difficult to introduce it without specific legal documents that are tailored-made for the process. And the company behind it – Resomation Ltd – set up by Sandy Sullivan, who has invented this process, wants to go about this the right way from the beginning.
When I called the Ministry of Justice to find out what was happening, I felt like I had been transported into a series of ‘Yes Minister’. I was told that one department was waiting for another, that Ministers had changed and that hydrolysis (as they call it) falls outside the regulatory process, so it might need an Act of Parliament. But then it was explained that perhaps it wouldn’t because it wasn’t actually unlawful. The only thing that was clear was that sorting out the legal confusion over the process hadn’t yet become a priority.
In a subsequent email it appears that the Ministry has changed its mind again about primary legislation. They say that it will be needed because this process does not amount to burning and is therefore not covered by cremation legislation. The problem is that they’re not planning to do anything to sort out this impasse and say they’re waiting to hear the views of the Environment Agency before considering next steps. Oh dear…
So, I can’t yet change my Will and request resomation of my remains. Until that happens I’m specifying an Ecopod coffin that’s shaped like a seed but made from recycled newspapers. I’d like old textiles to be used as a coffin liner – and to be put into an unmarked grave in a green burial site. But I’m hoping it’s not too soon.
This article is also being published by the Natural Death Centre, a charity promoting openness about death and dying. Another alternative to cremation is cryomation. I plan to research the environmental issues around this process too – but I believe that it’s similar to resomation and a whole lot better than cremation.