MANCHESTER, N.H. — Warning: This article is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish.
The Christian custom of burying the dead was the only method allowed until cremation became more mainstream in the early 1980s. Now another option is creeping into, and creeping out, society. It’s called “alkaline hydrolysis.”
Alkaline hydrolysis, or resomation, dissolves the body in a torpedo-like chamber that is filled with a pressurized lye solution and steam heated to 300 degrees. What’s left is a brown liquid that is poured down the drain. Bone fragments can be crushed or cremated and put in an urn.
The process, also referred to as chemical digestion, is currently used by medical research facilities and hospitals to dispose of animal carcasses and cadavers. But Chad Corbin, president of Goodwin Funeral Home in Manchester, N.H., would like to offer alkaline hydrolysis to people and is working to overturn a 2006 ban. A state study group recently concluded it should be legal.
Corbin is opposed by the state funeral board and the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, but he argues that resomation is more natural, environmentally safer and more cost-effective than cremation.
He contends that alkaline hydrolysis merely accelerates the natural process of decomposition of the body into its natural elements. In fact, he adds, you would get back more bone fragments with resomation than you would with cremation.
Some in the funeral industry say the cost of equipment will delay alkaline hydrolysis from catching on. But Corbin says while the initial equipment costs three to four times that of a crematory, the overall operating cost of resomation would be five times less than cremation. He would offer the service for the same price as cremation.
Corbin understands that it is disturbing to think about what happens to a body after death, but says what is put down the drain is no different than what is disposed of in the embalming process. “I believe resomation is much better than cremation for everyone involved,” he says. “I think it’s going to be the future of disposition in the U.S. and possibly the world.”
Beverly Ojeda, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries Conference in suburban Chicago, would argue that it is not a respectful or reverent way to handle the human body.
“They say they return you back to the environment, but basically, it’s a sewer, not the environment,” she says.
The Catholic Cemeteries Conference addressed the issue at its annual conference in Orlando, Fla., but the method is so new, and no one is promoting it within the industry. Any statement on it would require further reflection.
The New York State Catholic Conference wrote a memo to the state legislature regarding a 2007 bill that would have allowed hospitals and medical research facilities to use alkaline hydrolysis as an economical means to dispose of bodies it receives for research.
“Respect and reverence in handling a human body must not be sacrificed for financial benefits,” said the statement. “While we recognize the need for human body donations for medical research, compassion, at all times, must be provided to a family’s deceased love one. Chemical digestion is anything but compassionate.”
Franciscan Sister Renée Mirkes, director of the Center for NaProEthics, the ethics division of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., researched and wrote one of the first theological considerations of the question of resomation for the winter 2008 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly Review.
The review is interested in getting this topic out there to provoke a discussion in the theological community so the bishops will have something to refer to if, and when, they take up the topic.
Canon 1176 of the Code of Canon Law states: “Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals,” which offers spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, brings hope to the living, and must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws. The Church recommends burying the bodies, but does not prohibit cremation, unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.
The question is whether it honors the body, what you’re going to do with the ashes and your attitude, notes Benedict Nguyen, director of Catholic cemeteries and chancellor of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wis. “Most people would be choosing cremation for appropriate reasons. If you choose cremation, the cremated remains must be interred. In my opinion, [alkaline hydrolysis] doesn’t fit the definition of cremation as we have it. It’s an absolute prohibition to just flush our body down the drain,” he says. “If funeral homes do start offering it, then we will address it. If the Church does allow it, we would have to expand the definition of cremation.”
Jack Hunt, a Catholic funeral home director in Minneapolis for 50 years, believes alkaline hydrolysis, like cremation, will catch on if the price is right. He also worries that families on state medical assistance will be forced into choosing it because the state will only pay so much for a funeral.
Michael St. Pierre, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association, believes “green” burials will gain wider acceptance than resomation.
Green burials involve placing the unembalmed body in a casket made of hard reeds or other substances that will decompose with the body. The body is buried in a “green” cemetery that is left natural rather than manicured, and the grave is marked with a tree, bush or even a global positioning system, rather than a tombstone.
Most Catholics likely share the opinion of Marie Drew, 72, a member of St. James parish in Randall, Minn.
“I don’t think I want my body down the drain,” she said. “Proper burial is still a Christian thing. Your body is blessed, so you’re supposed to bury it.”
Barb Ernster is based
in Minneapolis, Minnesota.