British Columbia

Funeral director among those pushing for cremation alternative that dissolves bodies in water

A Victoria funeral director is among those advocating for an amended Funeral Services Act in B.C. to allow alkaline hydrolysis — also known as aquamation — as an alternative to cremation.

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation, is allowed in 3 other provinces

Victoria resident Jocelyne Monette is eager for B.C. to adopt an alternative to cremation that has gained popularity in other provinces. (Michael McArthur/CBC )

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. 

Victoria funeral director Chris Benesch's family has been in the burial and cremation business for over 60 years. (Michael McArthur/CBC )

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.

Aquamation uses hot water and an alkaline solution to accelerate the body's natural decomposition process. (Pascale Lacombe/Radio-Canada)

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. 

Funeral director Chris Benesch says his existing facility has enough space for up to three aquamation units if the process is approved in B.C. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

About the Author

Belle Puri

Reporter

Belle Puri is a veteran journalist who has won awards for her reporting in a variety of fields. Belle contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where she investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

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