May 9, 2008

Dissolving Bodies Could be the Future of Death

Humans have either buried or burned their dead since the beginning of civilization, but now a new option is gaining interest in mortuary science circles"”dissolving bodies in lye and flushing the residue down the drain.

Alkaline hydrolysis is a process that uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that are similar to pressure cookers. It was developed in the U.S. 16 years ago to dispose of animal carcasses.

As far as anyone knows, no funeral homes in the U.S. or any other part of the world currently offer this service. Only two known U.S. medical centers use it on human bodies, and only on donated research cadavers.

But many in the funeral industry believe it could one day rival burial and cremation due to its environmental advantages.

The Funeral Service Insider newsletter called it a "game-changing technology in the funeral service".

Psychopaths and dictators have used acid or lye to torture or dispose of their victims in the past and getting public acceptance for such a bizarre process may be the biggest hurdle. Sen. Kemp Hannon sponsored a bill to make alkaline hydrolysis available to the public in New York state, where it was commonly referred to as "Hannibal Lecter's bill""”a play on Hannon's name and the sadistic movie character.

Currently, Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in only Minnesota and New Hampshire, where a funeral director in Manchester is pushing to offer the service. He has not yet been given the necessary regulatory approvals and some lawmakers in New Hampshire are looking to repeal the 2006 state law legalizing it.

"We believe this process, which enables a portion of human remains to be flushed down a drain, to be undignified," said Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester.

Barbara French, an 81-year-old State Representative, said she would consider alkaline hydrolysis.

"I'm getting near that age and thought about cremation, but this is equally as good and less of an environmental problem. It doesn't bother me any more than being burned up. Cremation, you're burned up. I've thought about it, but I'm dead," said French.

Alkaline hydrolysis leaves liquid remains as well as a dry bone residue similar to cremated remains. Families would have the option of having it buried in a cemetery or keeping it in an urn.

The liquid remains have the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell, but proponents say it's sterile and can be safely poured down the drain as long as operations have the necessary permits.

The process doesn't require the space needed for cemetery burials and it could ease environmental concerns about crematorium emissions, including carbon dioxide and mercury from dental fillings.

Alkaline hydrolysis has been used since the mid-1990s to dispose of research cadavers at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. has used the process since 2005.

Brad Crain, the president of BioSafe Engineering, the company that makes the steel cylinders, estimated 40 to 50 other facilities use them on human medical waste, animal carcasses or both. Veterinary schools, universities, pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government are amongst the users of the process.

Both the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida flush liquid waste from cadavers down the drain. Other Alkaline Hydrolysis sites elsewhere do as well.

In New Hampshire, Manchester funeral director Chad Corbin wants to operate a $300,000 cylinder. He said that an alkaline hydrolysis operation is more expensive to set up than a crematorium but that he would charge customers about as much as he would for cremation.

"Things the public might find more troubling routinely flow into sewage treatment plants in the U.S. all the time. That includes blood and spillover embalming fluid from funeral homes," said George Carlson, an industrial-waste manager for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

Corbin received his permit last year, but failed to secure the remaining necessary permits and now must start the process over again despite mounting resistance from the community.

"I don't not know how long it will take," he said recently, "but eventually it will happen."


On the Net: