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Death: the final environmental frontier

19 August, 2022

Originally patented in 1888, aquamation is gaining popularity and was chosen by activist and priest Desmond Tutu as a low impact way of dealing with his body after his death last year. Traditional methods such as cremation and burial have a significant environmental footprint, and as a result, many people are turning to innovative ways of ensuring that in death, at least, their footprint is small.  

Aquamation, or flame-less cremation, is a form of water-based cremation that replicates a traditional burial and cremation processes but with significantly fewer carbon emissions. An alkaline solution is heated in a tank that dissolves the body and leaves just the skeleton, which can then be pulverised and returned to the family, like ashes from cremation.  Aquamation yields up to 30% more ashes than flame cremation and the remaining sterile solution is rich in organic compounds that can then be used as fertilizer or (even) cleaned and used as water.  

While it is currently available in some US states, and competitively priced compared to traditional methods, it’s not currently legal in the UK, although this may change soon if aquamation is approved in Scotland. Attempts to launch it in the West Midlands in 2017 were blocked by Severn Trent, who objected to the proposal on the grounds that trade effluent permits didn’t cover dissolved bodies.  

That said, there are remarkably few laws around how a body is disposed of after death, provided you are not creating a public health risk and have registered the death correctly. For example, while there are rules around the minimum depth of graves, you can be buried in private land if the owner consents. There’s no legal requirement to use a funeral director, be embalmed or even to be put in a coffin (provided you are “decently covered”).  

And while we have been slow until now to move away from the traditional approach to post-death rituals, that may be changing. As the climate crisis continues, people are starting to consider eco-friendly alternatives, such as human composting where microbes and bacteria turn human remains into compost, or sending ashes to external reefs to build marine life. With a traditional funeral and cremation creating the same amount of carbon emissions as burning through two full tanks of petrol,  there are many ways to have a send-off that leaves a light footprint; the choice – increasingly – is yours.   

By George Hargreaves

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