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Dissolving The Dead: A Radical Alternative To Burial And Cremation   
 
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22-May-2017  
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Robert J Klink spent his life near water.

When he was growing up in the 1950s, his parents had a cabin on South Long Lake, in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. He learned to fish and hunt near the water’s edge.

It became a lifelong passion, and for many years he and his second wife Judi Olmsted kept a couple of cabin cruisers on the Saint Croix River. Bob would fish and shoot ducks, which he prepared and ate by himself.

Shortly before Bob’s death in March from colon and liver cancer, Olmsted approached her local funeral home, Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater.

She told the people there that her husband wanted to be cremated when his time came.

She was surprised to learn that Bradshaw’s offered two types of cremation: the one that everyone knows about, involving fire, and a new kind, which uses water.

A pamphlet explained that this “gentle, eco-friendly alternative to flame-based cremation” used an alkaline solution made with potassium hydroxide to reduce the body to a skeleton.

“At first, I was thinking, ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’” Olmsted says.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was the best way to go.”

When we are buried, we ask our planet for resources a final time - wood for a coffin, cotton for the lining, stone for a monument.

In the US, graves are usually either lined with concrete or the coffin is placed in a metal or concrete vault which will not decompose.

But cremation has an environmental cost too. To burn a single body, a cremator machine generates enough heat to warm a home in winter for a week, even in freezing Minnesota.

Bradshaw’s are one of just 14 funeral homes in the world to offer this “green” option. Alkaline hydrolysis is said to be much more environmentally friendly than conventional cremation.

They offer both services at the same price and say the new kind of cremation has proved an unexpected hit.

Of their customers who choose not to be buried - about half of the total - 80% opt for alkaline hydrolysis.

But environmental benefits may not the only factors influencing their decision.

In choosing green cremation Judi Olmsted was mindful of Bob's lifelong love of water and she perceived, in the water-based method, an echo of childhood baptism, which she found touching.

“We just felt being that we were the first in this area - and one of the first in the country - we needed to put in that larger investment.

“Because we have tour groups that come through all the time, we have hospice, we have church groups. We have people who just want to see it, because it’s so new.”

He leads me down to the basement and into a circular room with a tinkling waterfall.

The ochre-coloured wall contains a floor-to-ceiling window looking on to a another room, with wooden sliding doors on the other side of the glass.

Jason disappears, switches on the lights in the next room, and pulls open the doors.

And there is the alkaline hydrolysis machine - a rectangular steel box, 6ft high, 4ft wide, and 10ft deep.

It has a huge circular door covering almost its entire width, that wouldn’t look out of place on a bank vault or submarine.

The industrial appearance of the machine jars with the sombre intensity of the viewing room.

I wonder what sort of person would choose to watch their relative or friend being placed into this machine, which is known as a “tissue digester”.

I watch Jason and his colleague, David Haroldsen, wheel a corpse through the door.

The body is not identified to me and is completely covered by a black woollen cloth, which Jason and David, wearing blue surgical cloves, delicately tuck into the edges of a steel tray.

Then they open the big door, raise the tray to the level of the black cavity inside the machine, and slide it in.
 
On the side of the machine is a computer screen with four buttons labelled “unlock”, “test”, “cycle” and “lock”.

Jason closes the door, presses the “lock” button, and with a pneumatic hiss and a whirr, the door locks shut.

Then he presses the “cycle” button. The machine beeps twice, there is another hiss and it begins to fill with water.

Jason, who has a degree in Biology and Chemistry, explains that the machine weighs each body and calculates how much water and potassium hydroxide to add.

He says it’s roughly 65lb per 600lb of water.

The powerfully alkaline solution, with a pH of about 14, is heated to 152C (306F), but because the digester is pressurised it does not boil.

Alkaline hydrolysis is the natural process your body goes through if you’re buried. Here we’ve created ideal conditions for it to happen much, much faster.”

In a cemetery this may take decades, depending on the conditions and the method of burial.

In the alkaline hydrolysis machine it takes 90 minutes, though the ensuing rinse cycle takes at least as long again.

After three to four hours, the door unlocks and the funeral director sees wet bones scattered across the metal tray, together with any medical implants the dead person had in their body.

Metal hip and knee joints come out in perfect condition.

The manufacturers of the tissue digester have even proposed that, when more machines are in service, they could be collected and donated to the developing world.

By the end, all tissue has dissolved into the solution, which has drained into a separate tank, hidden from view.

“It resembles either a tea or an ale,” says Jason.

“You can actually see through it - and is really made up of salts and sugars. It has a bit of a soapy smell, which is not off-putting, but it is distinct.”

The room in which the machine stands has a smell similar to a dry cleaner’s.

The pH level of the effluent is tested, and if necessary adjusted. Then the liquid is released down the drain.

It is sterile mix of amino acids and peptides, with no human DNA.

Nevertheless, this disposal of dissolved tissue as a waste by-product, and its progress through the water treatment system, is the part of alkaline hydrolysis that troubles people the most.

Bradshaw’s dry the bones - either slowly, in a special cabinet - or quickly, in a tray placed inside a domestic tumble drier.

“It works the best,” says David, with a shrug.

Then they are put through a machine called a cremulator, which pulverises them into a coarse powder.

This is exactly the same machine that is used after a regular cremation, and as with a regular cremation, the word “ashes” is a misnomer.

The difference is that the resulting powder is finer and whiter, closely resembling flour - and there is about 30% more of it.

So far, the Bradshaw’s tissue digester has processed about 1,100 bodies, roughly one every day.

It was manufactured in the UK by a company called Resomation Ltd, which plans to install an identical machine in Sandwell, near Birmingham in the British midlands, at the end of this year.

Sometimes families want to help operate the tissue digester, Jason says.

We do have families that want to assist in placing the tray in - or to push the ‘cycle’ button to start the process itself.
“And some people would look at that and say, ‘Why would you ever want to be involved with that?’ Other people would say: ‘That was the last thing I could do for my mum or my dad.’

“I’ve been here when we’ve had three siblings, all standing next to the machine, and together they have all pressed the button to start it.

“And I kind of think of it like, if we’re standing at that cemetery and everybody’s going to take that first scoop of earth and place it into the grave - it’s sort of that moment of letting go.”

Around the world, 150,000 people die every day, and the number is rising as the world’s population increases.

Today there are 7.5 billion of us on Earth, but by the end of the century it’s thought there will be more than 11 billion.

In some countries, space for graves is running out. In the UK, it is estimated that half of cemeteries will be full in the next 20 years.

In parts of London, the council no longer offers a burial service, and the city has started re-using grave space, lowering bodies further into the ground and placing new ones on top.

The use of land for burial - and the constant upkeep of that land - has an environmental impact. Burial also typically calls for natural resources.

 
 
Source: BBC
 
 

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