Everything you need to know about alkaline hydrolysis: an eco-friendly alternative to burials

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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What with everything becoming hipster-fied these days (an avocado can no longer be just an avocado, a pineapple can no longer be any colour other than pink, yada yada), we were unsurprised to learn about the rise in alternative burials.

From having your ashes shot into space to encouraging your remains to grow into a tree via a biodegradable pod, the traditional concepts of being buried or cremated are now far from the only options available to us.

And now, a new burial concept that purports to be more eco-friendly and cost-effective than any other method is set to make it’s arrival in the UK.

Called alkoline hydrolysis, the method is currently legal in parts of the US and Canada, and it involves dissolving the body after death to leave just bones and liquid behind.

So how does it work?

Jason Bradshaw, who manages the Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater, US, took the BBC on a tour around the “tissue digester” he uses to dissolve clients’ bodies.

A rectangular steel box that is six feet high, four feet wide and 10 feet deep, the machine opens via a submarine-like door, through which the body – laid out on a steel tray – is inserted.

The machine then weighs the body to calculate how much water and potassium hydroxide is required to dissolve it, and the alkaline solution is heated to 152C before being poured over the body.

“Alkaline hydrolysis is the natural process your body goes through if you’re buried,” Bradshaw told the BBC. “Here we’ve created ideal conditions for it to happen much, much faster.”

Indeed, the process takes around three to four hours in the machine, while in a cemetery it could take decades. Once it’s over, there are just wet bones left on the metal tray, along with any metal implants that might have been in the body. These are then inserted into a “cremulator” which reduces them to powder, similar to ashes but finer and whiter, and with 30% more mass than ashes resulting from a cremation.

One of only 14 machines in the whole world, Bradshaw’s tissue digester has so far processed some 1,100 bodies.

The machines are actually produced here in the UK, and the company that makes them is planning to open one near Birmingham before the end of the year.

While it might sound like a brutal way to dispose of a body, Bradshaw says family members are increasingly keen to be involved in the process of dissolving their loved ones’ remains.

“We do have families that want to assist in placing the tray in - or to push the ‘cycle’ button to start the process itself,” he said.

“I’ve been here when we’ve had three siblings, all standing next to the machine, and together they have all pressed the button to start it.

“And I kind of think of it like, if we’re standing at that cemetery and everybody’s going to take that first scoop of earth and place it into the grave - it’s sort of that moment of letting go.”

Alkaline hydrolysis has also been gaining support from fans of the “eco-death” movement, who see it as a more ecologically sound method than burial or cremation.

Every day, 150,000 people in the world die, and the space for graves is becoming increasingly sparse while cremation carries a high carbon footprint (each cremation is the equivalent of about 320kg of carbon dioxide).

And according to Dutch researcher Elisabeth Keijzer, who has analysed the environmental impact of burial, cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, it is the third method that is most ecologically friendly – the cost to offset the damage to the environment for a burial is 63.66 euros per body, 48.4 euros for a cremation and just 2.59 euros for alkaline hydrolysis.

Of course, the method is not without its controversy, and it is banned in a number of states in the US.

However, a quick straw poll of the offices suggest half of us would be happy to have our bodies dissolved after death – while others are staunch defenders of the traditional idea of burials and graveyards.

You can let us know your thoughts on the matter in the poll below…

Images: iStock