Many consider that the remains of their “loved ones” are being treated “as if they were “waste” by this technique

Alkaline hydrolysis is a new method, developed in the United Kingdom, which hopes to consolidate itself as an “ecological” alternative to burial and cremation (see HERE).  The process begins by placing the body of the dead person into a capsule-like chamber for several hours, where it is subjected to a solution composed of water and chemicals, at temperatures of up to 150°C. Once this first stage is finished, the liquid is removed from the inside of the chamber, with only the bones of the dead person remaining inside. The skeletal remains then are transferred to another machine, which will dry and grind them, resulting in a powder with a consistency similar to flour. This grinder is also used in the processes of cremation and incineration, so it is incorrect to use the term “ashes” in such cases.

Today, alkaline hydrolysis is only legal in fourteen states in the United States and in three provinces in Canada. It is thought that the United Kingdom will be the first European country to legalise this method.

As ethicist Sister Renee Mirkes says, the greatest challenge to alkaline hydrolysis stems from the fact that after the first step in the process, the solution of water and chemicals (in which the skin, muscles, organs and other non-bony tissues of the dead person are dissolved) is disposed of as waste, ending up — in the best case — in wastewater treatment plants.  Along these lines, Philip Olson, a philosopher at Virginia Tech, says that this reality may lead many to consider that the remains of their “loved ones” are being treated “disrespectfully”, as if they were “waste”. To the criticisms and doubts of bioethicists is added the rejection of the US Catholic Church, which through institutions such as the Catholic Conference of Ohio, has said that “dissolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resulting liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains”.

The implementation of alkaline hydrolysis has also generated controversy within the funeral service sector itself. Numerous funeral companies refuse to provide this service, as they consider that it makes it difficult to carry out their business and customer care, and is a financial loss: while cremation lasts one hour, alkaline hydrolysis requires between three and four hours.

However, in establishments that also offer alkaline hydrolysis, 80% of clients opt for this method, compared to 20% who prefer cremation. The reasons given by clients for choosing alkaline hydrolysis range from considering that “water is less harmful than fire” (not taking into account the potent abrasive effect of the chemicals involved in the process) to seeing their choice as “an act of firm commitment to the ecology”.

Business owners in favour of alkaline hydrolysis promote the product by defining it as “eco-friendly” or “green cremation”, because it is “responsible and respectful with the environment”. This statement was confirmed by two studies published in 2011 and 2014 by Dutch researcher Elisabeth Keijzer, funded by the funeral chain, Yarden, which stated that alkaline hydrolysis consumed fewer resources and generated a lower ecological footprint than burial or cremation. However, both studies said that the way of disposing of mortal remains scarcely accounts for between 0.001% and 0.003%of the ecological footprint generated by a person over their lifetime.