What Is Water Cremation? California Just Legalized This Eco-Friendly Burial Method, But Its History Is Really, Really Creepy
In addition to having myriad health benefits, floating in a tub of water is super relaxing. So, why not carry that feeling with you into the great beyond? Water cremation is the newest trend in body disposal, after California legalized the eco-friendly body cremation method on Oct. 15, along with 14 other states. While this green method has a lot of people abuzz, it's really not new at all, and water cremation has a pretty creepy history that involves turning livestock into plant food, according to Wired. Scientifically referred to as "alkaline hydrolysis," water cremation was first invented in the late 1800s as a way to help dead animals decompose more quickly so they could be turned into fertilizer. Neat!
Researchers revived the process two decades ago when they realized it was an easy way to dispose of medical cadavers that they no longer needed, Wired reported, but it's now becoming an eco-friendly burial alternative that people are opting for as they plan their end-of-life. Sarah Wambold, a licensed funeral director who works in the green burial space, tells Bustle, "It is more conceivable to many people to soak a body in a final bath rather than putting it in an incinerator in a warehouse somewhere."
If you can get past the plant fertilizer and cadaver history, this eco-cremation method actually makes a lot more sense than having your blood drained, getting your body filled with chemicals, getting spiffed up with some glam makeup you'd never wear IRL, and being put on display like Sleeping Beauty before being sealed in a box and stored underground for all of eternity.
Personally, the idea of being buried has always freaked me out because I have an irrational fear of bugs. The thought of creepy crawlies feasting on my remains gives me major anxiety, and I always thought I would opt for cremation instead. However, new options like turning your body into a tree after you die, and now water cremation, have the added benefit of knowing that you're helping to preserve the environment — even from beyond the grave.
How Does Water Cremation Work?
Perhaps you don't spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen to your body after you die, but in our culture, we are conditioned to think that what I described above is the only way to honor the dead. The truth is that there are a lot of options open to you.
Water cremation, also known as green or bio-cremation, uses water blended with an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide to dissolve the body to ash and bone, according to the website Green Cremation. "The human body is placed into a pressurized stainless steel cremation chamber where water and alkali are automatically added and the temperature is raised to 350°F. Water, alkali, heat and pressure are gently circulated over the body, working together to cause a reaction that begins and completes the cremation process," says Green Cremation.
"Water cremation was developed as a more environmentally friendly method of reducing human remains as opposed to the funeral industry's standard method of burning, which uses a lot of energy and emits toxins," says Wambold.
In a video interview for Motherboard, Mayo Clinic Director of Anatomical Services Terry Regnier shows how the body looks post water cremation calling the bones "angelic," "pure," and "clean." He then pulls out the humerus, the upper arm bone, and it looks just like a part of the skeleton you likely saw in the corner of the room in your high school or college biology class. After the water cremation is complete, your the family receives the ground bones in an urn just like they would receive ashes with traditional cremation.
Many people are embracing water cremation, like Judy Kastelle who told the New York Times, "I just liked the gentleness, of [her mother] kind of being dissolved away. I knew cremation was the thing, and [water cremation] just seemed like an option that felt kinder, to me." However, others are recoiling at the thought of the water used to dissolve bodies being released into local sewage systems.
"They say ‘soylent green’ or ‘throw mama down the drain’ or all that stuff," Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio Response — a manufacturer of water cremation machines — told the Times. But this is where we circle back to that whole plant food thing, which was the original impetus for this type of cremation. Experts say the water is sterile and act as a valuable fertilizer, on top of the process being more eco-friendly than other types of burial.
Alternative Approaches To Burying The Dead
Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles-based mortician who is the author of From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, told the Washington Post that attitudes about how we view death and burial are shifting. Doughty is a self-described activist and funeral industry rabble-rouser. In 2011, she founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death, according to her website, and opened alternative funeral home Undertaking LA in 2015 to empower families who want to have a closer relationship with death and the funeral process.
The funeral home doesn't do large funerals, embalming, caskets, or burials. Instead, Undertaking LA helps families take care of the dead at home, encourages witness cremation — you can even press the button, and natural burials at places like Joshua Tree Memorial Park.
"The people who are really dying right now are in their 80s and 90s, the Greatest Generation. I think they’re going to be the last generation to embrace the embalming the body, putting it on display, the wake, the Catholic ritual," Doughty told the Post. "Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials are more open to these new ideas, to these green ideas, to these participatory ideas."
Wambold, who is also a member of The Order of the Good Death, says that the ritual of water cremation can feel ceremonial. "As it becomes more available across the United States, people are taking an interest in it because of it's conservation of resources but also because of its gentler approach."
Basically, the rise in popularity of water cremation is all about changing our perception, and going back to our roots to make death a more natural process. Because, in reality, embalming has been around the same amount of time as water cremation — so there's really no reason to think it's creepy after all. Your body won't be used to fertilize plants if you opt for this method, unless you direct your family and friends to scatter your bones around a tree or in a garden.
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