U.C.L.A. is the only place in California that liquefies the dead. But after five years and hundreds of bodies processed, Dean Fisher, director of the university's Donated Body Program, hopes to change that. He has been working with state legislators on a bill allowing funeral homes to use this process, called alkaline hydrolysis.
Such machines break down tissue using lye (water mixed with a small quantity of potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide), which snaps the chemical bonds that hold together proteins, fats, DNA and other bodily building blocks. Multiple mechanisms can be used: The most expensive machines boil the lye at high pressure and 150 degrees Celsius, which can disintegrate a body in few hours. Cheaper models--unpressurized and operating below boiling point--might take a day (and are frowned on by some of those championing the pressurized approach, who are not convinced the budget-friendly models will always fully digest the remains). Some machines keep the body horizontal; others tip it into the lye. But with any of these approaches what comes out should be a brown soup of simple organic molecules that can be poured into a sewer system. The bones, however, do not dissolve. They can be pulverized and given to the family of the deceased.
Companies marketing the technique trumpet its low greenhouse gas emissions compared with flame crematoriums that burn natural gas. Alkaline hydrolysis uses energy primarily to heat and cool the lye--and thus emits about 80 percent less carbon dioxide--according to an estimate by TNO, an independent research and development consulting organization in the Netherlands. "If you're concerned about gas emissions, the choice is pretty obvious," says California Assemblyman Todd Gloria. He wrote California's new bill after being approached by Qico, a company in San Diego prototyping alkaline hydrolysis technology.
But is the soapy soup it dumps into the sewer safe? Disease should not be a problem because the roiling lye sterilizes the organic material, says Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions. The company, based in Danville, Ind., built many of the low-cost units now used in funeral homes, including Jeff Edwards's in Ohio. "It's hot as hell in there, and alkali is a powerful sterilant at temperature," Wilson says. Testing on animal carcasses, much of which has been peer-reviewed, seems to back his claims. "Even the hardiest pathogen, an anthrax spore, is easily killed," he says, adding that the process also breaks down toxic chemicals such as embalming fluid.
I would like it better if the crematoriums had to put the goo thru a preliminary wastewater treatment process first before dumping it down the drain. Despite the process to bring down the pH, it could still be a problem for the pipes over time and because of sheer volume, especially considering the age of our sewer systems. Plus, the wastewater treatment plants weren't designed to deal with large volumes of high pH influx on a regular basis. It could adversely affect the microbial population in the digestion tanks used to "clean" the wastewater.
But i'm all for cremation. That or becoming a tree.