Water could replace cremation for eco-funerals

Image: Mayron Oliveira, Unsplash

Have you heard of water cremation?

An environmentally sustainable funeral that uses pressurised water rather than intense heat for cremation is launching in the UK for the first time later this year.

Water cremation, known as resomation or aquamation, will be available as an eco-friendly alternative to cremation for the first time in the UK from Autumn 2023, through the UK's largest funeral provider, Co-op Funeralcare.

Water cremation is already available to the general public in nearly 30 states in America and is permitted in Canada and South Africa. Following his death at the end of 2021, the late anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose the process for his funeral arrangements.

The introduction of resomation will be the first alternative way to dispose of a body in the UK since the introduction of the Cremation Act in 1902.

"The rise in ecological and sustainability concerns over the past decade, combined with a desire to be part of nature or laid to rest in a natural setting, means more people are considering the environmental impact of their body once they die."

Professor Douglas Davies, Durham University.

Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Co-op found that while 89% of UK adults had not heard of the term resomation, once explained, just under a third (29%) said they would consider choosing it for their funeral if it was available. In addition, 17% of UK adults who have arranged a funeral in the last five years said they would have considered resomation for their loved one's funeral had it been an option at the time.

The Co-op, which arranges over 93,000 funerals yearly, added that with 80% of families now opting for cremation for their loved one, it is time for alternative methods such as resomation to be considered a mainstream option for UK funerals.

“Up until now choice has been limited to burial or cremation," said Gill Stewart, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare. "We’ve seen from the rapid uptake of newer funeral options such as direct cremation that when choice in the funeral market is broadened, this is only a positive thing both for the bereaved and for those planning ahead for their own farewell.”

Julian Atkinson, director of resomation service Kindly Earth said, “Throughout the thirty years I have been involved in the funeral industry, I have always been passionate about people having access to more sustainable end of life arrangements, and we are encouraged to see that many members of the public are conscious of reducing the carbon footprint, even after death.”

Anthropologist and theologian Professor Douglas Davies from the department of theology and religion at Durham University, said, “The UK has a history of innovation when it comes to compassionately, practically and hygienically managing the disposal of bodies after death.

"Cremation grew in popularity throughout the 20th century and overtook burial in the 1960s as the preferred method of disposal for people. The rise in ecological and sustainability concerns over the past decade combined with a desire to be part of nature or laid to rest in a natural setting, means more people are considering the environmental impact of their body once they die.

“The reduced carbon footprint that may come with resomation, compared with other forms of body disposal, means it will no doubt be of interest to many people as the practise is increasingly made available in the UK. We have seen interest in water-based disposal build in many countries, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu being the most high-profile person to recently use this method.”

How does it work?

The deceased is enclosed in a biodegradable pouch and placed in a container filled with pressurised water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide.

During the procedure, the combination of water, heat, and alkaline chemicals accelerates the natural decomposition process, and tissue and cells undergo rapid transformation, converting into a solution of micromolecules.

Each cycle takes approximately four hours. At the end of the cycle, the remaining bones are dried, then reduced to a white powder, similar to ash.

The company says the sterile leftover liquid can then be safely returned to the water cycle, free from DNA traces.

Two resomators at the resomation facility in Leeds.

How is it better for the environment?

Research has found resomation is a more sustainable alternative to conventional burial and cremation methods due to its significant lack of toxic gas emissions, air pollutants, and environmentally harmful fluids. Traditional cremation practices result in the release of carbon dioxide and potentially hazardous gases, while burials carry the risk of contaminating groundwater sources.

The Co-op, which arranges more than 93,000 funerals yearly, said it would continue working closely with sustainability experts and academics to validate existing research during its initial regional pilot.