The Burial of the Future: Alkaline Hydrolisis

Our bodies, turned into a brownish liquid

  Brad Crain, president of BioSafe Engineering, near one of the steel cylinders used for alkaline hydrolysis
Since the Stone Age, there have been two main methods of disposing of human corpses: burial or cremation. African tribes leave human corpses out for hyenas to eat; others leave the body to decompose in trees or on rocks. However, the future could add another option to the list: alkaline hydrolysis. Our bodies would be dissolved in lye and turned into a brownish, coffee-colored syrupy residue, in what is clearly a very environmentally friendly technique. The liquid has the texture of motor oil and spreads a strong ammonia (urine-like) smell, but it is sterile and can be poured down the drain. In US, animal carcasses have been melted using this method for the past 16 years.

The process requires large stainless-steel cylinders resembling pressure cookers to achieve 300o C heat and 60 pounds (27 kg) of pressure per square inch (6.25 square cm). In US, these cylinders are made by BioSafe Engineering (Brownsburg, Indiana). At the moment, only two U.S. medical centers (the University of Florida in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota) employ this technique on human bodies, while the procedure itself is legal in Minnesota and New Hampshire. 40 to 50 other centers employ alkaline hydrolysis for human medical waste, animal carcasses or both.

It is hard to make people accept this technology because, in the public mind, it has been connected with psychopaths and bloody dictators using it to torture or get rid of their victims. "We believe this process, which enables a portion of human remains to be flushed down a drain, to be undignified," Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, told the AP.

On the other side, there are others who see the positive side of alkaline hydrolysis. "I'm getting near that age and thought about cremation, but this is equally as good and less of an environmental problem," state Rep. Barbara French, 81, lawmaker, told AP.

Besides the brownish liquid, the hydrolysis would leave a dry bone residue resembling cremated remains, which could be deposed by the family in an urn or be buried in a cemetery. The alkaline hydrolysis solution popped up in the middle of a debate triggered by crematorium emissions, including greenhouse effect causing carbon dioxide and mercury contamination, as a result of silver dental fillings. The alkaline hydrolysis could be employed by veterinary schools, universities, pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government.

"Things the public might find more troubling routinely flow into sewage treatment plants in the U.S. all the time. That includes blood and spillover embalming fluid from funeral homes," George Carlson, an industrial-waste manager for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, told the Associated Press.

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By    14 May 2008, 20:46 GMT