You may not equate death with climate change, but disposing of human remains leaves a fairly hefty carbon footprint.
“Cremation is really what people hold up as the environmentally friendly option,” says Caitlin Doughty, a mortician in Los Angeles. “It’s better than the whole rigmarole of formaldehyde and chemicals and big caskets that go into the more traditional funeral industry, but it still releases mercury into the air, and it uses a whole ton of natural gas.”
Plus, Doughty says, cemeteries monopolize land, an increasingly precious resource as the population grows.
Hence the growing popularity of a green alternative, known as water cremation, bio-cremation or flameless cremation. Basically, the body is dissolved in a hot chemical bath, leaving a sterile solution that can be flushed down the drain. The carbon footprint of this process is just a quarter of traditional fire cremation because it uses so much less energy; and only a sixth of a burial because it doesn’t require the materials for concrete headstones, mahogany caskets or the chemicals used in embalming.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would legalize water cremation. In the last decade, two previous efforts have failed, although the process has been approved in 14 other states, including neighboring Nevada. This year, a third attempt is gaining momentum in California, progressing further in the Legislature than the previous bills.
Not an Acid Bath
There’s only one place in California where bodies are currently dissolved — legally, at least. That would be a chilly basement lab at UCLA, where cadavers that have outlived their usefulness at the medical school end up. The room smells a little like shellfish, which I think might be the smell of melted flesh. But the guy in charge, Dean Fisher, laughs at that notion.
Fisher, the head of the university’s Donated Body Program, explains that I’m sniffing potassium hydroxide, a base, and the chemical of choice for liquefying bodies, because it catalyzes the hydrogen in water to more rapidly attack the chemical bonds between molecules in the body. (The process is technically called alkaline hydrolysis.)