Looking for a Greener Death

An aquamation unit. Photo via bioresponsefuneral.com.

Aquamation, a method of body disposal that uses lye to dissolve muscles and organs — basically, anything that isn’t bone or tooth — is more environmentally-friendly than cremation and has a growing number of supporters who want it for themselves or their loved ones. Right now, though, it’s difficult to access and is only legal in a handful of states. As Emily Atkin’s story in The New Republic reveals, there are several groups with a vested interest in keeping it largely illegal, and they’re not afraid to use inflammatory rhetoric to get their way.

Representative Dick Hamm’s speech made national news that day, and not only because of his business interest in keeping human aquamation illegal in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm said, comparing the process to “flushing” a loved one. This wasn’t accurate. Aquamation uses lye, not acid, and similar fluids are flushed down the drain during the embalming process. But Hamm’s hyperbole was effective. Though he was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, it failed in a 34-59 vote.

The idea that aquamation is unnatural or gross or even immoral has impeded its adoption in other states. A bill to re-legalize it in New Hampshire, where it had been legal for two years before being repealed, was rejected in 2009 after lawmakers gave speeches similar to Hamm’s. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski said. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”

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