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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Skittish about cremation? Try this

There's an emerging alternative to cremation. Called alkaline hydrolysis, Resomation (a trademark), water reduction, or aquamation, it involves dissolving human remains into a safely disposable liquid. A small amount of solid matter remains that can be treated in the same way as ashes from cremation.

Proponents of alkaline hydrolysis say that compared to cremation, it uses far less energy, generates fewer greenhouse gases, and releases no airborne mercury. Many news stories have circulated recently about alkaline hydrolysis; here's one.

Burial services are highly regulated; even if alkaline hydrolysis is shown to have widespread appeal, it would take years for it to be widely legalized. Also, as a matter of practicality, mortuaries would have to purchase the necessary equipment and train their personnel to use it properly.

I've asked several people about this technology, and the unanimous reaction so far has been yuck -- a surprise to me, because I think the arguments in its favor are compelling. Many people feel a degree of discomfort whenever discussing burial arrangements or death in general. I'll leave the explanation to clergy, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists. I wouldn't say that it is my favorite topic either, but I don't abhor it.

Major religions have divergent teachings about cremation. Indian religions favor it. Islam opposes it. Most of Christianity permits or at least tolerates it, but some Christianity opposes it. Judaism also offers varying guidance. I don't know how these faith traditions will react to alkaline hydrolysis; I suspect a few will embrace it quickly but most will resist.

Meanwhile it seems like a rational choice to me.