Dissolve and Flush: Funeralized Alkaline Hydrolysis.
The Newest Technology for Disposing of Dead Human Beings.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist
In the West, interment, inhumation, entombment have been the traditional methods of disposing of dead human bodies, that is, prior to the late 19th century with the revival of cremation as an alternative. Until about 1880, cremation was anathema, unless, occasionally, at times of extraordinarily large numbers or dead, such as during war time, during epidemics, or following natural disasters, mass graves or incineration of the corpses was preferred to avoid further catastrophe in terms of public health. Fire cremation was revived in the West as a quasi-pagan option attributed to non-Christian freethinkers and masons or simply to anti-social elements but then took a different tack by appealing to the public health and environmentally conscious elements in conventional society. Today, economic concerns both consumer and industrial take precedence. The dominant market economies in the industrialized West, particularly in the USA, UK, and some Western European countries, as well as the insatiable appetite of post-modern, post-Christian cultures for novelty and individualism, have left the door ajar for the entry into the funeralization professions of an industrialized process called alkaline hydrolysis (AH), an industrial process invented in the late 19th century as a way of dissolving in strong chemicals farm animal waste for use as fertilizer.
“Omnes homines terra et cinis” Sirach 12:32
In a particularly beautiful description of how the pre-Vatican II Church thought of the human being, and in poetry that was possible only in a more sensitive epoch of human history, one reads:
“The old Church holds on to her dead with eternal affection. The dead body is the body of her child. It is sacred flesh. It has been the temple of a regenerated soul. She blessed it in baptism, poured the saving waters on its head, anointed it with holy oil on breast and back, put the blessed salt on its lips, and touched its nose and ears in benediction when it was only the flesh of a babe; and then, in growing youth, reconsecrated it by confirmation; and, before its dissolution in death, she again blessed and sanctified its organs, its hands and its feet, as well as its more important members. Even after death she blesses it with holy water, and incenses it before her altar, amid the solemnity of the great sacrifice of the New Law, and surrounded by mourners who rejoice even in their tears, for they believe in the communion of saints, and are united in prayer with the dead happy in heaven, as well as with those who are temporarily suffering in purgatory. The old Church, the kind old mother of regenerated humanity, follows the dead body of her child into the very grave. She will not throw it into the common ditch, or into unhallowed ground; no, it is the flesh of her son. She sanctifies and jealously guards from desecration the spot where it is to rest until the final resurrection; and day by day, until the end of the world, she thinks of her dead, and prays for them at every Mass that is celebrated; for, even amid the joys of Easter and of Christmas, the memento for the dead is never omitted from the Canon. She even holds annually a solemn feast of the dead, the day after “All Saints,” in November, when the melancholy days are on the wane, the saddest of the year, and the fallen leaves and chilly blasts presage the season of nature’s death.”
The Church of bygone days frequently used prose poetically and quoted liberally from the Church Fathers and even from the ancient philosophers and historiographers like Plato, Seneca, Socrates, Cicero many of whom, though pre-Christian, did not eschew the notion of the immortal soul. St Augustine writes, “We should not despise nor reject the bodies of the dead; especially we should respect the corpses of the just and the faithful, which the Spirit hath piously used as instruments and vessels in the doing of good works…for those bodies are not mere ornaments but pertain to the very nature of humankind.”
Cremation made an occasional appearance in isolated periods of Western history or in outlier regions where Christianity had not yet attained dominance; cremation was largely associated with non-Christian, pagan cultures.
In the East, in places where Hinduism and Buddhism had a firm foothold, cremation was and continues to be the norm. In some geographical areas such as in parts of Tibet, where the ground is unfavorable to interment and wood is a scarce and valuable resource, exposure of the corpse or dismemberment of the corpse and consumption by carrion-eating birds, so-called sky-burial or, in its form where the dismembered corpse is cast into a fiver for consumption by fishes, water burial, is practiced.
A similar practice of exposure is found in Zoroastrian communities in Iran, in the so-called towers of silence or dakhma, where the dead are brought, exposed, and consumed by vultures; the skeletal remains are then later collected for disposal.
While isolated instances of cremation are reported both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, burial or entombment was conspicuously the norm. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, burning of a corpse was a final act of abomination, reserved for only the worst elements of society.
One of the common misapprehensions of the Church’s aversion to or discouragement of incineration of the human body as a routinely available option for final disposal is that it was associated with pagan or freethinker practice, or with attempts to dissuade believers from faith in a bodily resurrection. While this might have some historical substance and may be represented by some early writers, it is but a minor hypothesis.
As Eusebius describes early Christian aversion to flame cremation in a statement that still holds plausible, “” they (the Pagans) did this (cremated) to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will arise.” In other words, cremation was a challenge to the belief in bodily resurrection as taught and believed in the early Church.
Furthermore, no less a figure than Cicero advances the notion that incineration was of ancient practice in Rome, and suggests that inhumation was a practice that predated the Roman practice of cremation. In fact, some noble Roman families never permitted their bodies to be burned, and Sulla is said to have been the first Roman who ordered his body to be cremated after death, lest his bones should be scattered by his enemies. The pontiffs of pagan Rome would not acknowledge a funeral to be complete unless at least a single bone cut off from the corpse, or rescued from the flames, had been de posited in the earth.
Ancient Greece and Rome did practice cremation at various points in their histories but the ultimate disposal of the remains continued to be burial; either a part not consumed by the flames or the “bones” of the cremated corpse were ultimately buried in the earth. Cremation was by no means consistently the norm or the preferred method of disposal in Greece or in Rome.
Pope Boniface VIII forbade all violent modes of disposing of the dead as savoring of barbarism. “The respect due to the human body requires that it should be allowed to decay naturally, without having recourse to any violent system;” so says Grandclaude. A forcible argument against cremation is also found in the Catholic custom of preserving and honoring the relics of the Saints and putting their bodies or portions of them in the altar. It would be no longer possible to have the most important relics of future Saints if their flesh were to be consumed by fire.
That brief sampling of ancient teachings and beliefs regarding the question of incineration of human remains, arguably a “violent system” of disposing of human remains, should suffice to provide a background for the remainder of this discussion. For a more detailed discussion, I refer the reader to the Reverend Bann’s article cited above.
It was only in the late 19th century that a cremation movement came into being, and then only owing to the deplorable conditions in the cities which were rapidly outgrowing their boundaries due to immigration from rural areas, and the resulting encroachments on the previously outlying churchyards and, with population growth and densification, poor sanitation, and high mortality rates, consequent overfilling of existing cemeteries literally to the point of overflowing.
Such were the conditions that gave rise to the public health concerns of reformers who claimed that the dead in the cemeteries were evil, that their miasmas leached out into the water and the spaces of the living, causing disease, suffering, and death. It was the evil dead rotting in the earth and their juices that were public health enemy No. 1. The open sewers and living conditions of the larger cities, and the putrid waters of the rivers flowing through them, of course, were not to blame.
And so, an alternative method of disposal of the dangerous and filthy dead had to be found, one that did not threaten to gobble up valuable real estate, and one that could be justified in the face of Church and religious objections. Cremation was the most obvious answer for purifying the unclean corpses. After all, since time immemorial fire was the great purifier.
In the beginning, therefore, the initial impetus was the miasma theory of pestilence, and corpses were to blame. Then, around 1880, the germ theory of disease was born. It debunked the established miasma theory of disease, and stated that disease was caused by specific organisms, germs. No problem for the cremationists, who were quite agile in dropping the miasma theory and accepting the germ theory but corpses were not yet off the hook, so to speak.
If germs were the cause of many of the diseases afflicting the population, wouldn’t the putrid rotting corpse be germ heaven? And if you have all those corpses lying about doing nothing but what corpses do, that is, rotting and defiling the air with the aromas of putrecine and cadaverine. Those same rotting corpses were breeding grounds for pestilence and a simple hole in the ground was not very likely to contain the little vermin. Cremation, the great sterilizer, would be the cremationists’ next slogan. But it didn’t last long.
The interests of the economic-minded would carry the day both in terms of the environment and the economy, and that campaign agenda is with us to this day. Basically, the dirge goes: “Why allocate so much valuable land to the dead when the living can profit by it?” Land for the living! After all, as corporations like StoneMor can confirm, cemetery real estate and the real estate occupied by the cemeteries represents a vast fortune. Someone has to tap into it.
The countries of Europe afflicted with the spirit of rationalism had no problem dealing with cemeteries; they just overruled the Church and legislated that the state had ultimate control of the citizen in life and in death. The Church could fall back on canon law but ultimately had to acquiesce to the state’s overwhelming power, and so the cemeteries were secularized. Once secularized they were emptied and their occupants relegated to ossuaries or catacombs en masse, and anonymous in their tens, even hundreds of thousands. In many instances, their eviction from the cemeteries and relocation to the quarries was done under cover of night, in order not to offend the living or present an obstacle to commerce.
In countries where the Church, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant dominated, the faithful were expected under established sanctions, to obey the doctrines of their faith. For most mainstream Christians, and for all Orthodox Jews and Muslims, cremation was an abomination, and burial in the earth or entombment were the only acceptable methods of sepulture. And so it remained until 1963, when the Roman Catholic Church relieved it’s ban on cremation and, while not encouraging cremation, did not censure those who opted for incineration as their preferred method of disposal. Upto then, those choosing cremation were pro forma classified as apostates, atheists, pagans, free-thinkers, or Masons.
The 1960’s was a decade of revolutionary reform in practically every aspect of life: politics, religion, morals, education, all of which ultimately found expression in attitudes towards life, death, dying and after-death.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) , aquamation , resomation , biocremation , call it whatever you like it all literally boils down [no pun intended] to taking a dead human body, placing it into a pressure cooker, adding water and chemicals, heating, cooking, draining, rinsing. The dissolved flesh and organic matter is then flushing into the sewer system. What is left is bones and any metallic or synthetic material in the body (artificial joints, pacemakers, sutures, etc.). The metal such as artificial joints etc. will be recycled or “repurposed.” The bones will be dried and ground up into a sandlike powder and returned to the family or otherwise disposed of.
The actual patented process, alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process developed for waste disposal. “Waste disposal” is the actual term used in the patents. AH was developed for disposal of infectious or hazardous waste by dissolving it into a “safe and sanitary” end-product. In fact, the actual wording of one of the patents is: “it is an object of this invention to provide a system and method for safely treating and disposing of waste matter containing undesirable elements, such as infectious, biohazardous, hazardous, or radioactive elements or agents.”
AH was developed for dissolving, liquefying organic matter into a disposable liquid that can be recycled as a fertilizer or simply flushed down the drain. It’s actually a technology that was developed in the late 19th century for disposing of animal waste, and which was developed in the mid-20th century for disposal of farm slaughter waste and for elimination of medical school cadavers, is now being promoted as the new eco-friendly take on cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis a.k.a. water cremation a.k.a. biocremation — in reality just using a Draino®-like chemical to dissolve the dead human body and flush the remaining human sludge down the drain into the public sewer system — is the new rage in technology. Some funeral homes in about 14 states, where the process is now legal in the United States are now offering it as an alternative to cremation. It’s disgusting and will be a hard sell, since it will be acceptable only to the really bizarre element out there. I hope to clarify some of the issues in this article.