Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Resomation: Cremation Gets Green.

I'm reading Jessica Mitford's 1996 revision of her 1963 classic, The American Way of Death, a thrilling, sharp, funny, enthusiastic take-down of the funeral industry. It's an engaging book, crisp and loaded with brilliant social observation.

So I was intrigued by last Sunday's New York Times Magazine feature, The 9th Annual Year in Ideas, which included this entry on updates in cremation technology:


The cremation rate has been on a brisk rise in the United States, in part because cremation is cheaper than burial and saves land. But powering a crematorium requires an enormous amount of gas and also sends carbon dioxide and other pollutants skyward. Enter resomation, an alternative to cremation for the eco-conscious cadaver.SANDY SULLIVAN
Resomation is a process that liquefies rather than burns body tissues. It uses about a sixth of the energy of cremation and has a much smaller carbon footprint, according to Sandy Sullivan, the managing director of Resomation, a company in Scotland that has designed a resomation machine. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has been using a similar system since 2006 to dispose of donated bodies, but this year the first commercial Resomator is being installed at a funeral home in Florida, one of three states where the process is legal.

Resomation (a neologism meant to suggest rebirth) was first proposed for use in Europe as a method of disposing of cows infected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The corpse is placed in a pressurized chamber. The vessel is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide, creating a highly alkaline solution, and heated to 330 degrees. After about three hours, all that's left are a soft, white calcium phosphate from bone and teeth and a light brown primordial soup of amino acids and peptides. Bodies buried underground decompose in the same way, albeit over many years and aided by microorganisms.

Unlike cremation, resomation doesn't vaporize the toxic mercury of dental fillings and doesn't char joint implants, leaving them clean, shiny and potentially recyclable. The bone and tooth material can be ground into a fine ash, as with traditional cremains. The brown liquid, because it's sterile, can go down the drain. "There's no genetic material in it at all; it's just basic organic materials," Sullivan assures. "You might get some people who say they want the fluid as well, but at the end of the day, it's best to send it to the water treatment plant so it ends up back on the land, as nature intended it to." RUTH DAVIS KONIGSBERG

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