What is "Aquamation"? A Sustainable Cremation Alternative Called Alkaline Hydrolysis

Daniela Fortino
Daniela Fortino
April 18th 2023 - 18 minute read
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For many years, most people in the midst of arranging a funeral have faced a simple choice: cremation or burial? But there is a new, third option available: Aquamation, otherwise known as alkaline hydrolysis

Anita Chauhan & Daniela Fortino

For many years, most people in the midst of arranging a funeral have had only two choices: cremation or burial? But there is a third option available: Aquamation, or flameless cremation, is otherwise known as alkaline hydrolysis. While technical sounding, this process is simply a water-based method of final disposition.

Canadian company Eirene Cremations  offers aquamation services where legal and in the provinces we serve, with a sustainable alternative to traditional cremation or burial. It is legal in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories. See more about the legal status of aquamation in Canada and aquamation in the USA).

Read on to learn more about this flameless cremation offering, and how you can decide if it’s the right service for you or your loved one.

This article will answer the top most asked questions about this new funeral process is including "what is aquamated?" Read on to the Desmond Tutu aquamation section below to find out why this has become a popular query.

What is alkaline hydrolysis, aka aquamation?

Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a water-based, sustainable method of final disposition. It is sometimes called water cremation or bio cremation (especially in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan). Aquamation has no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases or mercury and requires no burning of fossil fuels.

This form of final disposition combines a gentle water flow, even temperature, and alkalinity used to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials. Aquamation is the same process that occurs in nature when a loved one's body is laid to rest in the ground, although at an accelerated rate.

How long has alkaline hydrolysis been around

Aquamation has been around since 1888. It was developed by a farmer named Amos Herbert Hanson to process animal carcasses into fertilizer. It was later used in labs to dispose of contaminated animal bodies. The first commercial aquamation machine was installed at the Albany Medical College in 1993 to dispose of cadavers. The process continued to be used for this purpose in schools and hospitals over the next several years. It was also used commercially for animals as a cheaper alternative to flame cremation.

Throughout the early 2000s to the present day, aquamation has been approved and legalized for use on human remains across many jurisdictions in North America. Minnesota was the first state to approve it in 2003, and Saskatchewan was the first province in Canada to approve it in 2012. However, aquamation was not used by the funeral industry until 2011. It was first used commercially by two funeral homes, one in Ohio and one in Florida. It is now legal in four Canadian provinces and one territory and less than half of the 50 U.S. states, with pending legalization in several other parts of the continent.

How does aquamation work?

The process of aquamation starts with the placement of a body in a stainless steel vessel. The vessel is filled with water and potassium hydroxide (alkali), which is also referred to as lye, an odourless, off-white flaky, or lumpy solid.

The quantity of alkali used depends on body characteristics such as weight and gender, but the ratio for the solution is approximately 95 per cent water and five per cent alkali. The vessel's contents are then subjected to high temperatures (200 to 320 F / 93 to 160 C) and agitation to prevent boiling and to promote breakdown of organic material. During the process, fats, proteins, minerals, and carbohydrates from the remains are reduced to basic organic components (i.e., fats get reduced to salts). They become dissolved into the water.

The process results in a sterile green-brown liquid and bone remains. Next, the liquid is released from the vessel as wastewater, and the remains and equipment are rinsed with fresh water. Finally, the bone material gets processed into a fine powder, placed in a cremation urn, and returned to the family or next of kin.

Read more about the aquamation and flame cremation process.

In Canada, aquamation is legal for use in human funerals in four provinces and one territory: Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories. It is not yet legal for human disposition (as of October 2022) in Canada's other provinces and territories.

Note: Here at Eirene we offer aquamation in Ontario. We offer it under the technical name alkaline hydrolysis in Saskatchewan, along with flame cremation. We also provide flame cremation operations in Nova Scotia, and expect to offer aquamation once it become legal and we receive approval to offer it. It is currently unknown if aquamation is under consideration to be legalized in N.S.

It is also legal in 20 U.S. states. These include Alabama, Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah. A ruling is pending in New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.

See U.S. state by state aquamation status chart.

Outside of North America, the aquamation of human remains has also been approved in the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, South Africa and is in the process of being approved in the Netherlands.

Besides humans, the technology is also used to aquamate pet remains.

How long does the alkaline hydrolysis process take?

The aquamation process takes anywhere between 6-8 hours or 18-20 hours. Timing ultimately depends on the operating temperature of the equipment that is being used. The process takes place at approximately 200-300°F or 150°C.

In contrast, a flame cremation typically takes 2-4 hours and at a temperature between 1600-1800°F or 871-982 C .

What happens during the alkaline hydrolysis process?

To begin the process, the body is placed in a stainless steel vessel. Alkali, a basic, ionic salt of an alkali metal or an alkaline earth metal, is added to the vessel at a ratio of 95% water and 5% alkali. The amount added depends on individual characteristics, including weight, sex, and embalming status. From there, the vessel fills with water.

Once the vessel is filled, the alkali water solution is heated to 200-300°F and gently flows throughout the vessel for the length of the aquamation process.

Once the process is completed (6-8 or 18-20 hours, depending on temperature), all organic material within the vessel is broken down to the smallest building blocks. There will be no DNA or RNA remaining - our bodies consist of 65% water, to begin with. The sterile processed water is released for recycling, and the vessel performs a clean, freshwater rinse for the equipment and remains.

When the freshwater rinse is completed, the operator opens the door of the vessel. Inside, only the inorganic bone minerals will remain. These remains and minerals are reduced into ashes and returned to the family. This processing step is similar to the one that is followed by flame cremation.

What happens to to the leftover liquid?

A by-product of aquamation is a green-brown, sterile liquid containing peptides, amino acids, sugars, and salts, all by-products of natural decomposition. This liquid can be disposed of through the sewer or wastewater treatment system. Funeral homes in North America use this same waste disposal procedure during the embalming process.

Was Desmond Tutu aquamated?

Aquamation was the funeral option chosen by Desmond Tutu who died Dec. 26 2021. At his request, the Nobel Peace Prize winner's body was aquamated. Aquamation is" considered to be a greener alternative to cremation," South Africa's Anglican Church told CNN.

How does aquamation compare to burial?

The aquamation process uses heated alkaline water under pressure to decompose a body into a skeletal form in under 12 hours. In a grave where the soil is generally alkaline this same process can take up to 20 years.  

What does the wastewater liquid produced by aquamation smell like?

By one account, aquamation wastewater smells like steamed clams in another account it smells like ammonium  (similar to the odour of sweat or urine).

Does the family receive an urn with ashes after aquamation?

Yes, aquamation ashes, which consist of mostly powdered bone, is returned to the family. Aquamation's flameless cremation process produces 20-30% more ashes than flame cremation.  The inorganic remains of the body (the calcium phosphate in bone) looks just like skeletal remains.  The minerals are turned into a powder and they are place in a temporary urn (you can select an urn here).  The processing step that turns remains into powder is the same as the one performed with flame cremation.  Aquamation ashes are finer, like flour. Flame cremation ashes are coarser like fine gravel.

What do aquamation ashes smell like?

In most cases, aquamation ashes have no detectable smell. Learn more here.

What is the environmental impact of aquamation?

Aquamation has no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases or mercury, no burning of fossil fuels and uses less energy than flame-based cremation.

The aquamation process uses less water than a single household uses in one single day (source: USGS.gov). This includes the water used for the process of aquamation and the freshwater rinsing of the final remains and stainless steel vessel.

What happens to the water after the process is completed?

Following the process and the final clean water rinse, the water flows back to the ecosystem via your local wastewater treatment facility. This is the same process used by all funeral homes in North America and other parts of the world during the embalming process.

Aquamation produces a completely sterile and safe solution of amino acids, salts, nutrients, sugars, and soap in a water solution. These are the byproducts that come with natural decomposition.

What do the major religions say about aquamation?

Some religions, like Islam, prohibit the use of aquamation, whereas others embrace it. Learn more in this article called: What Do Major Religions Say About Aquamation.

How much does aquamation cost?

The cost of aquamation varies depending on the funeral home and what is included in the funeral package. It is generally a bit more expensive than flame cremation. However, the price differences should not be not drastic. The price for aquamation typically ranges from $2000 to $3000 CAD. Flame cremation can range anywhere from $800 to over $3000 CAD.

At Eirene, our Aquamation funerary packages cost $2500 and $3000 for witnessing. Included in this package are care services, transportation, assistance with paperwork, and more. More information on the package can be found here or by calling 647-424-3408. Eirene also has a selection of urns to choose from after the process is completed. Urns can be found in our Canadian online urn store.

We have also partnered with Affirm payments to ensure every family has access to affordable death care. Once approved, Affirm allows you to make time payments for your desired services with no hidden fees or late fees. Even if you are not eligible for Affirm’s payment plan, we will work with you to ensure you get the support you need.

Does the family receive an urn after aquamation?

When you choose aquamation, you receive 20-30% more ashes than you would receive from a traditional flame cremation. It is provided in a basic urn container. You can buy a better urn and have the ashes returned to you by your funeral director in that container.

In many parts of the world, particularly in North America, we process the minerals into a fine powder for placement in an urn. This step is consistent through aquamation and flame cremation. Read more on the flame cremation steps in our blog.

You may need a larger urn. Sometimes a larger-sized urn will be required due to the increased volume of ashes compared to flame cremation. This is not a hard and fast rule but varies for each individual case.

Find the perfect urn for your loved one here at the Eirene store. We offer a wide selection of local and handmade urns perfect for memorializing your loved one.

Do I need a casket for alkaline hydrolysis?

Unlike flame cremation, a container or casket is not required for aquamation. Casket materials, as well as most cloth materials, will not break down. However, some protein-based materials (e.g., wool) can degrade during the process. Therefore, coverings such as a wool shroud can remain on the body if family members wish.

Do I need to embalm the body for the process?

As with many end-of-life options, embalming is not required. This is something that the family of the deceased person can choose to do, but it is not required. If you decide to embalm, all embalming fluids will be broken down in the aquamation process.

Interested in learning more about embalming? Read more on the process here.

Is alkaline hydrolysis a safe process for funerary staff?

Similarly to flame cremation, a large part of the body disposal process is done by machines and equipment. The remainder of the service is conducted by trained funeral professionals, making it a relatively safe process. Additionally, the by-products of aquamation are safe for humans to handle. The ashes are sterilized, making them disease and pathogen-free. The liquid by-product is also sterile and does not contain compounds that would cause significant harm to humans or other animals. That is why it can be disposed of using standard wastewater systems.

Is aquamation safe for the environment?

Aquamation is often considered a sustainable funeral option. Like flame cremation, the process requires fewer resources and leaves less of a physical and environmental footprint. However, aquamation creates no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. There is no mercury by-product. Fossil fuels are not burned. It also uses less energy than flame-based cremation. The ashes, which consist of crushed bone fragments, are not damaging to wildlife or plant life if scattered.

What about mercury?

Some people are concerned that mercury from human teeth is released into the air during cremation. This is true during flame cremation which uses temperatures of 1600 to 1800 F or 871 to 982 C. Aquamation uses much lower temperatures of 200-300°F.  Mercury vaporizes at 674.1°F  or 356.7 C so mercury remains intact in the process, bound in the teeth. The teeth are recycled through a government-approved dental amalgam handler.  Release of mercury from fillings to the environment is completely prevented using aquamation. Learn more about dental and medical mercury usage in Canada.

What is the difference between aquamation vs flame cremation?

The main difference between aquamation and flame cremation is the environmental impact each process has. Fewer resources and energy are needed for aquamation. For example, flame cremation requires temperatures of 1,400 to 1,800 F (760 to 982 C). Aquamation requires temperatures of around 320 F (160 C) during the process. Flame cremation emits harmful chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, embalming chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde), and mercury from dental fillings and surgical implants. Aquamation does not directly emit harmful greenhouse gases or mercury.

Other differences between aqumation and flame cremation are the quanity of ashes. In flame cremation, resulting ashes contain body remains with some ash from the casket, clothing, and anything else within the cremation container. With aquamation, the ashes are typically only bone materials and minerals.

The colour and consistency of the ashes are also slightly different. Ashes from flame cremation are often grey, with a more coarse consistency. In comparison, ashes from aquamation are often a white or tan colour, with a more consistent, smooth, powder consistency. Moreover, aquamation also produces more ashes, about 20-30 per cent more than flame cremation.

Can there be a viewing, ceremony, or embalming before aquamation?

Yes, what happens before the aquamation process is up to the family and friends of the deceased person. Many will choose to have a viewing or visitation beforehand, and embalming may be part of that. Embalming fluids do not affect the process as they are completely broken down during aquamation.

What can be done with cremated remains after aquamation?

There are many things family and friends can do with cremated remains to honour a loved one. Ashes can be kept in one household or shared with several people using keepsake urns or jewelry. They can be buried in a plot or put on display in a niche at a cemetery in a columbarium. They can be scattered in a favourite location, sent into space, incorporated into fireworks, and there are more options here.

If your family chooses to scatter a portion or all of the remains in a special, meaningful place, make sure to check local and provincial regulations before scattering your loved one's ashes. Read more in our blog to learn about considerations you must make before scattering ashes.

Memorialization is also not limited to activities with the ashes. Loved ones can arrange a ceremony, a celebration of life party, a candle lighting ceremony, a lantern release party, and so on. The options are essentially endless.

How much ashes are produced after aquamation?

A traditional flame cremation products about 1 cubic inch of ash per lb of body weight. For flameless cremation, expect about 20-30% more or 1.2-1.3 cubic inches per lb of body weight. Most adult urns can hold 200 cubic inches of ashes.  You would need an urn that holds 200 ci or more and then possibly a smaller keepsake urn. To learn more about amount of aquamation ashes, see this article.

If a person has metal implants or medical devices, what will happen to them during this process?

Depending on legislation, some provinces/states such as Ontario require pacemakers and defibrillators to be removed prior to aquamation. However, if medical devices remain in the body they will not be destroyed through this process. Once the process is complete, the metals and medical devices are cleaned and sterilized. The leftover metals are recycled through the proper channels and made into new materials.

How do I know if aquamation is right for me or my loved one?

Ultimately, your choice of disposition is a personal one. At Eirene, we believe that families should be given the tools and education to make the best decision for their loved ones. We are simply here to support you. If you’d like to speak to a licensed funeral director about your options, give us a call at 647-424-3408.

Why choose aquamation?

One of the main reasons to choose aquamation is that it has less environmental impact without sacrificing quality or incurring a high cost. Additionally, it is a more gentle process and results in more ashes that can be shared with family and friends. This makes aquamation a great alternative to flame cremation and burials, especially for eco-conscious people who want to reduce their impact on the environment, even in death

An alternative choice for your loved ones

Aquamation is a viable option for many Canadians looking to lay their loved ones to rest in a conscious way. It's truly an exciting advancement in end-of-life space. By offering this option for families, Eirene is proud to give Canadians more end-of-life options, including sustainable ways to be laid to rest. If you are interested in learning more visit our Aquamation | Eirene Help Center, or contact us today.

How do I make aquamation arrangements at Eirene?

To book aquamation arrangements, click here. Our team is available 24 hours per day and 7 days a week. For information about our service areas, please visit our locations page.

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