Almost 80% of families in the UK choose traditional cremation when a loved one passes away, while the remaining 20% opt for burial.
However, it’s no secret that land for burial is scarce, and the flame cremation process carries a heavy carbon footprint — each cremation releases approximately 245 kg of carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, annual carbon emissions from cremations in the UK amount to a staggering 115,150 tonnes.
With growing concern, the funeral industry and the general public are keen to find a greener alternative, and water cremation is gaining traction. However, most of the UK’s population remains unfamiliar with it.
Let’s investigate water cremation, its operational process, associated costs, and environmental advantages.
What is water cremation?
Water cremation uses water instead of fire for the cremation process.
It’s also known as liquid cremation, flameless cremation, green cremation, and alkaline hydrolysis.
Prominent brands associated with water cremation are Resomation, Aquamation, and Bio-Cremation.
Remarkably, water cremation is the first new legal human body disposal method in the UK since the Cremation Act of 1902.
As with any end-of-life option, a traditional funeral service or more informal gathering is possible before the cremation occurs, followed by a commemorative event like a wake.
How does water cremation work?
The journey of water cremation begins with carefully removing the body from the coffin. It’s then gently placed on a tray and enveloped in natural wool.
Once covered in wool, the body is placed inside a biodegradable pouch crafted from cornstarch. This pouch-encased form is lifted into a pressurised, horizontally positioned steel water chamber.
The water chamber introduces a solution comprising 95% water and 5% alkali — typically potassium or sodium hydroxide. Gradually, the temperature of the solution is raised to 160°C (320°F). This elevated temperature triggers the disintegration of the cadaver into its elemental components — peptides, amino acids, sugars, and salts.
The combination of heat, pressure, and the liquid solution causes the body’s tissues to dissolve seamlessly. This transformative process has been likened to the natural decomposition of a human body when interred, albeit condensed into a matter of hours rather than spanning years.
What do water cremation remains look like?
Following the water cremation process, the resulting liquid remains undergo a careful assessment, treatment, and eventual discharge into public networks.
Notably, while the water solution effectively breaks down most of the body’s components, it doesn’t dissolve the bones. These bones are gathered, dried, and introduced into a cremulator device, where they’re converted into a fine powder resembling the familiar texture of traditional ashes.
This powder is placed into an urn and returned to the deceased’s next of kin.
They can preserve, bury, or scatter the powder — with the appropriate permissions — much like how ashes from a conventional flame-based cremation are handled.
How long does water cremation take?
The time required for a water cremation of a human body varies according to things like the temperature of the water solution and the dimensions of the body itself.
Typically, a water cremation takes approximately four hours at a temperature of 160°C. The duration extends if the procedure is conducted at a lower temperature.
Is water cremation legal in the UK?
Water cremation is legal in the UK, provided it adheres to the established health, safety, and environmental regulations.
While no crematoria currently provides this service, it’s anticipated to become available by the end of 2023.
This end-of-life method is also legally recognised outside of the UK. It is already used in other regions worldwide, including Canada, South Africa, specific US states, and certain parts of Europe.
How much does water cremation cost?
It’s impossible to give an exact price because nowhere in the UK currently offers water cremation. However, driven by the growing demand for environmentally conscious end-of-life alternatives, Co-op Funeralcare has announced plans to initiate trials of water cremation in specific regions by the conclusion of 2023. Kindly Earth is also poised to offer this service.
Water cremation is expected to be priced similarly to flame cremation.
It’s important to note that funeral prices vary by location, but at the time of writing, a direct (unattended) cremation in Leeds costs £1,277 with Co-op Funeralcare. An essential cremation costs £3,344, and a tailored cremation starts at £3,599.
The environmental impact of water cremation
Water cremation is an environmentally sustainable alternative to flame cremation and traditional burial, offering a much-needed third mainstream option to grieving families.
Water cremation vs. traditional burial
Conventional burial procedures like embalming involve harmful substances such as formaldehyde, phenol, menthol, and glycerin, infiltrating the environment through the soil.
However, the adverse ecological ramifications of traditional burial extend beyond chemical seepage. The process necessitates using coffins, traditionally composed of wood, copper, bronze, and steel. These valuable resources are used for an interred object, forever untouched and unseen.
Headstones add to this consumption of resources but help locate and commemorate the remains of a loved one on burial grounds.
Traditional burial also demands significant land plots that could serve more environmentally constructive purposes.
In sharp contrast, water cremation circumvents these issues entirely — eliminating the need for embalming or burial and avoiding using chemicals and valuable resources.
A water cremation uses just water, an alkali, and electricity.
Water cremation vs. flame cremation
Flame cremation emerged as an alternative to burial when graveyards faced rapid saturation. Over time, it has grown to become the overwhelmingly preferred end-of-life choice.
While flame cremation does steer clear of the challenges posed by burial, it regrettably introduces a set of its own.
A standard funeral followed by flame cremation exerts a significant environmental toll. The gas-powered fire and consequent release of toxins result in a substantial carbon footprint. Emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury are released into the atmosphere with every cremation.
Additionally, using coffins during flame cremation further exacerbates resource wastage and can amplify the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the process.
The remains resulting from flame cremation also carry environmental implications, necessitating permission for their scattering.
Direct cremation emerges as a more eco-friendly option than a conventional funeral followed by cremation. In this process, the deceased is cremated without mourners present, reducing the need for travel to the crematorium. This movement reduction also extends to fewer staff and funeral vehicles.
In stark contrast, water cremation possesses half the carbon footprint of flame cremation, using less than one-fifth of the energy. Dispensing with the need for a coffin, water cremation involves a natural process encompassing the body, water, an alkali solution, wool, and a biodegradable pouch.
This method curtails the environmental impact and presents a more sustainable and mindful approach to the end-of-life process.