Co-op Funeralcare says it hopes to offer water cremation for the first time in the UK later this year.
Currently, families have only two options when a loved one dies — less than 80 percent opt for traditional cremation, while the rest opt for burial.
But concerns over the carbon footprint of gas cremation machines and extremely limited space in graves have suggested cremating people in water as a greener alternative.
How does it work?
water cremation It involves placing a human body in a sealable, biodegradable bag, which is then placed in a large steel water chamber.
The water is heated to 160C (320F), but the pressure in the chamber prevents the water from boiling. A substance used to make soap called potassium hydroxide (or sodium) is added at a ratio of 5% chemical to 95% water.
This causes the natural tissue and fat to dissolve, mimicking the natural decomposition process when a person is buried – which can take up to 12 years.
Water cremation takes 4 to 14 hours.
It doesn’t break down human bones, which are turned into pure calcium phosphate in the process, and can break down into powder and scatter like ash.
Any dental fillings or surgical implants will also be left behind.
If it’s not available in the UK – where is it used?
Water cremation is also known by its scientific name alkaline hydrolysis, water cremation, biological cremation or the brand name Resomation or water cremation.
Resomation is the most widely developed technology, founded by Scottish biochemist Sandy Sullivan, who built the first ‘Resomator’ in the UK in 2009.
It’s also the fastest, taking four hours.
People in the UK cannot be cremated with water, but Co-op Funeralcare has been licensed by the relevant local councils and water boards and will be piloted in a small number of places later this year.
Although the Co-op has yet to reveal the pilot location, Leeds-based Resomation Ltd has applied to use its facility for commercial use, while another company in Sandwell, West Midlands, has also been granted approval.
The Water Authority had previously objected to the remaining liquid contaminating the mains, but Mr Sullivan’s company argued it was just natural protein from the body.
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Water cremation is legal in 28 US states and parts of Canada, although it depends on the funeral provider having the right equipment, which can be expensive, costing around £300,000.
Australia, Mexico and the Netherlands are also phasing in adoption.
It was originally developed in the 19th century to dispose of animal carcasses, and received renewed attention as an alternative to incinerating cattle carcasses during the BSE (mad cow disease) epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
In some parts of the world, it is used by private companies to hold pet funerals and dispose of dead bodies for medical research.
Although most people choose to cremate their loved ones, gas furnaces are environmentally harmful and expensive to run.
The embalming fluids used to preserve bodies also emit harmful chemicals — either into the atmosphere when bodies are burned or into the soil when they are buried.
Mercury is also produced when dental fillings are burned in traditional cremation.
Sociologist Dr Kate Woodthorpe, director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, told Sky News: “We cannot continue to develop in the way we are doing.
“Relying on full cemeteries does not generate any profit, while gas cremation consumes finite resources and is subject to fluctuations in energy prices.”
Space issues also deter those who can afford to bury, she added, as legislation dating back to the Victorian era prohibits the reuse of grave space in most places outside London.
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Helen Smith, chief commercial officer at Co-op Funeralcare, said a YouGov poll commissioned by the company showed that while 89% of adults had not heard of water cremation, nearly a third said , if available, they would choose water cremation.
“There are two drivers for this,” she said. “Customer Choice and Sustainability.”
“When we talk to families and people who are planning their own funerals, we see a real increase in the number of people affected by circumstances.
“As a co-op, we’re really committed to our goal of net zero emissions by 2040.”
Dr Woodthorpe added that with many people still struggling to speak openly about death, replacing fire with water might feel “gentle”.
“The use of fire to dispose of a dead body is a pretty radical way,” she said. “But water is abundant and renewable.”
May remain “niche” until cost-effective
If its regional pilot is successful, “guided by the science,” the cooperative said it hopes to offer water cremation at about the same cost as traditional cremation.
But because water cremation takes longer than traditional cremation, Dr Woodthorpe is skeptical that water cremation will scale up and become affordable.
“I think it’s really good that we’re talking about alternatives, but I wonder if water is going to be the answer,” she said.
“These are essentially commercial issues for private companies and consumers.
“Local authorities will consider their options, but they need to guarantee a return on investment.
“It’s an emerging option, but it’s very costly. So in that sense, it’s probably the more affluent people who are driven by the environment — because they can afford to do it.”
Co-op Funeralcare is working with at least one council on electric cremators.
Woodland burials, a process known as “human composting” and the use of eco-friendly coffins are all other green options being considered – which, it turns out, may be much cheaper than water cremation.
“I think unless they can make it cost-effective, it may remain a niche market,” Dr Woodthorpe said.
But Ms Smith added: “It’s all about testing emissions from various approaches. It’s a pilot, but the industry needs to play its part in getting to net zero emissions and we’re taking the lead on that.”