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As more people take an interest in their impact on the environment during their everyday lives, they’re now looking at their funeral differently too. Considering more sustainable options like eco-friendly coffins is now easier than ever. And after archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away and chose water cremation in January 2022, and Co-op Funeralcare announced plans to launch Resomation in the UK in 2023, more people are talking about the possibility of water cremation. Learn more in our guide below. 

What is a water cremation? 

Water cremation is an alternative to cremation by fire. It still leaves behind the ashes of the person who died. But water and an alkaline solution is used to speed up the process the body would naturally go through after death. The entire process is called alkaline hydrolysis. 

What is alkaline hydrolysis? 

Alkaline hydrolysis is the technical way to refer to water cremation. It’s the process of putting the body into a pressurised metal cylinder for a few hours. Water is added along with a strong alkaline solution like potassium hydroxide. It’s then heated to about 150°C. The alkaline hydrolysis process speeds up the natural way the body would decompose to leave behind bones. These are then dried in an oven, turning them into white ashes. After that they can be put in an urn and given back to the family of the person who died. 

So what is aquamation and resomation? 

Water cremation is sometimes known as aquamation or resomation. This is because there are different companies who’ve developed the water cremation process and they’ve each named it something different. So aquamation and resomation are basically brand names. What’s the difference between the two? Aquamation takes longer than resomation. But the processes are very similar. 

You may also hear water cremation described as: 

  • Bio-cremation 
  • Liquid cremation 
  • Hydro-cremation 
  • Green cremation 
  • Flameless cremation 
  • Cremation by water 

Is water cremation legal in the UK? 

Water cremation is legal in the UK as long as it follows health and safety regulations. But it’s not widely used in the UK yet. This is because there hasn’t been any facility where it can be carried out. But one of the largest funeral directors in the UK, Co-op Funeralcare, has announced its plans to introduce Resomation to the UK in 2023

Co-op Funeralcare conducted research with the help of YouGov that revealed that just under a third of adults in the UK would choose Resomation for their own funeral if it’s available. And 17% of adults who arranged a funeral in the last 5 years said they would have considered Resomation if it had been an option at the time of planning the funeral. As one of the UK’s largest funeral service providers, Co-op Funeralcare believes it’s time to move towards more sustainable options. 

Gill Stewart, MD of Co-op Funeralcare, said: 

“Our priority is to help families create a funeral that is personal every step of the way, and as the leading provider of funerals in the UK introducing innovative and sustainable options for our clients is an absolute priority. 

Up until now choice has been limited to burial or cremation. We’ve seen from the rapid uptake of newer funeral options such as direct cremation, that when choice in the funeral market is broadened, this is only a positive thing both for the bereaved and for those planning ahead for their own farewell.” 

Previously, the company Resomation Ltd tried to make a facility for water cremations to take place in the UK. It was met with some concerns from water companies. But after explaining there’s no risk to health and safety the company continued to reach out to partners to try to develop a water cremation facility in the UK. 

Water cremation is legal and already being used in the US. About 30 states allow it. And there are more states considering legalising water cremation too. You can find out more about which US states allow water cremation using the Earth Funeral water cremation tracker. It’s also being used in Australia, the Netherlands, Mexico and Canada. And there are plans for water cremation to be available in Ireland in 2023 too. 

How long does water cremation take? 

According to the company aquamationinfo.comthe process of water cremation can take 6-8 hours at 150°C. But it can take about 18-20 hours if the equipment used heats up to just 100°C. Traditional cremation by flame is quicker but it uses much more energy and releases more pollution. This is because traditional cremation needs to happen at about 900-1,000°C. 

When did water cremation start? 

Water cremation was first used in the 1800s. But it was only really used in the 1990s to safely get rid of animal bodies. For example, it was used to get rid of cattle during the mad cow disease epidemic to make sure the disease didn’t spread further. It’s also been used to cremate pets. It was later used to cremate human bodies that had been donated to science in medical schools in the US. 

A Scottish biochemist called Sandy Sullivan made the first water chamber for humans in 2009. He called it the resomator and so the process of resomation was developed. Since then Resomation Ltd has been exporting the technology. And it’s becoming a more popular option in the funeral industry as people become more concerned with their own impact on the environment. 

Why is water cremation an eco-friendly alternative? 

The companies that offer water cremation claim that the process of alkaline hydrolysis is a much more eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation. 

According to aquamationinfo.comthere’s no mercury or greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere during the process of water cremation. And no fossil fuels are burned. 

Resomation Ltd says that the process uses less than one fifth of energy used in an average flame cremation. So it’s a much more sustainable option. 

A study by the TNO scientific institute in Holland proved that water cremation had the lowest overall impact on the environment when compared with all other options like burial and traditional cremation. 

Is water cremation safe? 

There have been some concerns over the water used in alkaline hydrolysis draining away into the mains water system. But it’s actually safe. This is because any water that’s left behind is completely sterile. It doesn’t include any trace of remains or human DNA. It only leaves behind natural proteins, nutrients, sugars, and soap in the water.  This can be treated in the mains water system just like any other waste liquids. 

What are the benefits of water cremation? 

Even though water cremation isn’t widely used in the UK yet it has a lot of benefits that could help the environment. Here’s why water cremation could help us reduce our impact on the environment: 

  • No harmful emissions are released. The water cremation process doesn’t release any carbon emissions like traditional cremation. And it also leaves no trace of chemicals behind like a traditional burial would. For example, with a burial, chemicals used for embalming are often left in the soil due to traditional burials. 
  • Less space is taken up. In large cities traditional burial space is limited. With water cremation you can choose to do what you want with the ashes that are left behind. So there’s more open space not taken up by cemeteries. 
  • Less soil disturbance.  With traditional burial it takes about 12 years for everything to break down. The coffin may leave behind chemicals in the soil from the varnishes used or there may be metal fittings that are left behind. With water cremation no coffin is used. So there’s no soil disturbance and nothing unnatural left behind. 

How much will water cremation cost? 

It’s hard to say how much water cremation will cost in the UK because it’s not widely used yet. The cost for councils and crematoriums to buy the right facilities for water cremation is likely to be expensive. So this could mean that the cost of a water cremation is higher than a traditional cremation. But once it’s used more and more it could be priced around the same as a traditional cremation. It’s also worth keeping in mind that different crematoriums and funeral directors will have different fees for their services depending on where you are in the UK. So this will affect the cost of a water cremation too. 

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash