The Fight for Water Cremation in the U.S.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I had the opportunity to speak at New England Cemetery Association Annual Meeting last week in York, Maine. I gave a presentation about the blog, and tried to explain a little bit about my background, my goals for writing, and some of the bigger trends and takeaways I have after a few years of doing it. I structured it around a handful of posts, offered some lessons learned from them and posed questions to consider for the future. Ultimately I wanted to get everyone thinking about the way that we are portrayed in the media, what gets written about when we are covered, and what the future of our industry could look like based on those stories. I hope to share some of that with everyone in the coming months. It was a great experience, and many thanks to the N.E.C.A leadership and all those I met at the show.

The other presentation was by Dr. Suzanne Kelly, who gave a really fascinating talk on her experiences with green burial at the cemetery she operates in upstate New York. Active with the Green Burial Council, she has spoken and written about the process extensively. I was surprised to learn how straightforward the integration of green burial was into their existing cemetery operations. There were a lot of questions about the logistics, from how involved the family is to the depth of the grave to disinterments. Beyond green burial as a concept, which I've devoted plenty of space to on the blog, I came away with a better understanding of how exactly green burial "works," and how a cemetery makes it possible. It's actually a lot less complicated than it seems - the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery was even doing in-ground burials without vaults for many years, so they had some experience when they decided to open a natural burial section. They have made it a part of their regular cemetery operations, and found families receptive, engaged, and satisfied.

In related news, I wanted to pass along a piece about the current legal status of water cremation and the ongoing push by advocates to expand its use in the U.S. "The Fight for the Right to Be Cremated by Water" discusses the alkaline hydrolysis machines, which were actually patented all the way back in 1888, and are currently legal in 15 states. Originally used for disposing of animal carcasses in science labs, alkaline hydrolysis was first legalized by Minnesota in 2003 and most recently by California in 2017. The process uses a mixture of lye and water, heated under high pressure, that dissolves the body over several hours. Samantha Sieber, vice president of research at the aquamation equipment manufacturer Bio-Response Solutions, told The New Republic that “we thought families would want this because it’s more eco-friendly. They like that, but it’s not why they’re choosing it.” So while it is not entirely "green" - each body requires about 300 gallons of water - it aligns more closely with an attitude around death care, a belief that "it's a kinder way to treat a body," University of Virginia professor Philip Olsen said. He goes on:

“That’s becoming a more prominent value in American death care, the idea of gentleness,” he said. “That’s why we’ve seen such growth in the home funeral movement—the idea of using your hands is more intimate, of having contact with the body, not mediating your contact through instruments which are hard and cold.”

I think the above quote hints at the odd way death care can be conceptualized by consumers. Certain people might not want to be buried underground "with the worms and dirt," or burned up, or left out above ground. But an alternative interpretation is also true - fire is purifying, the Great Pyramids were mausoleums, being buried is a kind of return to the Earth. And the thing that nullifies it all is that you won't actually be around to have those feelings! Despite that logical inconsistency, we know that ideas around death are not always logical. And that's to be expected - our own death, by default, is that which we cannot imagine. Powerful and deep-seated emotions are connected to it because of that. When broken out into its component parts, any kind of final disposition can sound bad or good to a particular person, not to mention the various cultural practices around the world. Overall, what we keep seeing a broad embrace of new ideas about final disposition. Those ideas also indicate an open-minded perspective, not necessarily a fixed and immutable preference.