Funeral director among those pushing for cremation alternative that dissolves bodies in water
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation, is allowed in 3 other provinces
A cancer diagnosis in 2013 led Jocelyne Monette to realize how important it is for her to protect the environment in death as much as she does in life.
The 66-year-old — who is now cancer-free — is vegan, recycles religiously, and is in the process of downsizing to a 300-square-foot living space.
After her death, however, she does not want to be buried, nor does she want to be cremated.
"I don't want fossil fuel to be part of my journey out of this world," Monette said of the natural gas often used to fuel cremation.
Green burial, which eliminates caskets and headstones, is an option for some, but Monette finds it problematic because of the space that's required.
Instead, the Victoria resident wants her remains handled using a process called aquamation.
The water-based alkaline process dissolves a body in a matter of hours within a purpose-built stainless steel cylinder. It is legal in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and nearly two dozen American states, but not in B.C.
So far, 578 British Columbians have signed a petition urging the provincial government to allow the alternative to cremation.
Dissolving the body
Alkaline hydrolysis is the scientific name for aquamation. It uses a combination of water flow, temperature and alkalinity to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates — leaving behind only bones.
"[The bones] are processed and put into an urn, no different than flame cremation," said Chris Benesch, funeral director and owner of Earth's Options Cremation and Burial Services in Esquimalt, B.C.
The process also produces a liquid effluent said to be safe for disposal in local wastewater streams.
It's not so different from what happens to a body in a grave, said Benesch, but aquamation accelerates what takes years to accomplish in the ground.
"There's no fire. There's no smoke. There's nothing," said Monette. "It's just a stainless steel vessel with water gently flowing over the body."
Question of temperature
Water temperature determines how long it takes to dissolve the body.
A 2018 study by Public Health Ontario concluded high temperature alkaline hydrolysis, which takes approximately six hours at 177 C, is unlikely to contain any viable infectious agents in the remaining waste water.
Low temperature alkaline hydrolysis takes approximately 18 hours at 93 C and, according to the report, more research needs to be done to confirm its effectiveness in achieving adequate destruction of infectious agents in human tissues.
Only high temperature aquamation is approved in Ontario.
Ontario's chief of environmental and occupational health, Dr. Ray Copes, says the risks of low temperature aquamation are unclear.
"I wouldn't want to claim that there is a risk but it's also fair to say there hasn't been much scrutiny over that method," Copes said.
High temperature alkaline hydrolysis has been reviewed and is recognized by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control as a way to dispose of human remains without endangering public health.
Not a burning issue in B.C.
B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety says it has been reviewing alkaline hydrolysis as an alternative to traditional burial and cremation.
A spokesperson wrote in an email that legislative change would be needed to the Funeral Services Act, requiring consideration of environmental impacts, zoning, safety, training and licensing.
Monette says many people take steps to reduce their carbon footprint during life, but are left with little choice when it comes to how their death will impact the planet.
"We're not asking you to eliminate fire. We're asking you to add water and let us make the decision," said Monette.
According to Statistics Canada, 36,627 people died in B.C. in 2016. Benesch says 20 per cent of them were buried and 80 per cent were cremated.
"We're looking at just a little over 10 million kilograms of carbon pollution going into the atmosphere every year in British Columbia because of cremation," said Benesch.
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