"Families can participate as much or as little as they desire in preparing their loved one's Eternal Reef. Many chose to place handprints and memorabilia into the damp cement personalisation ring of their loved one's Eternal Reef and then go on a boat trip to watch the Eternal Reef be deployed to its final resting place in the ocean." - Photo courtesy of Eternal Reefs

The fight to rebrand death

Climate change and other factors are forcing us to reconsider traditional practices like burial and cremation. Meet the people at the frontier of the new death movement.

You have two lives,” says Ryan Cattoni, repeating a Confucius quote he has half-remembered. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.” Cattoni, though you might not believe it from this line, is extraordinarily cheerful for someone who processes the remains of the dead. Out in South Holland, Illinois, he runs a business called AquaGreen Dispositions, one of the companies who will dispose of your corpse in a way less barbaric than cremation and more environmentally friendly than burial.

Traditionally, the funeral business has been an area that resists change but of late, the death industry has started to shift. More and more people, when given an alternative to burial or cremation, are choosing the alternative. In the trade, the word for treating a dead body is disposition”. Burial is a method of disposition increasingly falling out of favour: more popular in a time when family members lived closer together and didn’t have to transport dead relatives over land and sea, it is just about the worst option for the climate (more on which in a second).

Burial’s dwindling popularity necessarily means that cremation, which in the US accounted for 53 per cent of dispositions in 2018, is becoming more popular. But the term cremation” is now being used to encompass a wider range of options than ever before. What AquaGreen Dispositions offer is something called aquamation. 

The scientific term for aquamation is alkaline hydrolysis but it is also variously known as aquacremation, resomation, and flameless cremation. Cattoni bought his aquamation machine for around $250,000 from a company called Bio-Response Solutions, who have a monopoly on the market. Their vice president of research Samantha Sieber, whose father founded the company, explains how the process works. 

It’s called a hydrolysis reaction,” she says. A body (often human, but Sieber says that she was probably the first person on Earth to have her dog aquamated) is placed into a large metal cylinder. The system fills with a solution that is 95 per cent water and five per cent sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. In this alkaline environment the copious water molecules split into hydrogen and hydroxide ions, and they decompose. Apply 200 – 300-degree [Fahrenheit] heat and the molecules work faster, breaking the body down into its constituent parts. 

Several hours later, what remains is a solution that is 96 per cent water. There’s no DNA, no RNA, it’s just amino acids, sugars, salts, soaps. It’s broken up as small as it can go.” This mixture – which is like tea – tends to be poured down the drain. Our skeleton can’t be broken down by that reaction because it’s inorganic,” Sieber says. It’s calcium phosphate; it’s just mineral. And it’s beautiful.” The skeletal remains are dried, processed into a powder, and returned to the family. (Aquamation returns around 30 per cent more ash than flame cremation.) On the AquaGreen Dispositions website they claim that the process uses 85 per cent less energy than flame cremation, and has less than one-tenth of the carbon footprint. 

  • By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”  By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.” 

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that flame cremation was fully embraced, and only recently did it overtake burial in popularity. Sieber thinks that the funeral profession completely fucked up” cremation. They treated families that wanted cremation like heathens and second-class citizens,” she says. Some people in the industry remain baffled as to why families would want to burn a body, not understanding that people love to distribute the ashes in myriad ways. They’re even more baffled by what I have,” she says. 

One of the reasons that aquamation is experiencing a surge in popularity, and cremation and burial are being looked at askance, is climate change. The death industry’s impact on the environment may be minor but, as we look for ways to minimise our contributions to climate change, every little helps. Science Focus says that one cremation generates approximately the same amount of CO2 as an 800km car journey, and that the burning of people’s dental fillings accounts for 16 per cent of the mercury pollution in the air. Embalming, meanwhile, uses formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that leaks into the groundwater when a body is buried. Burial is heavy on resources like wood and steel and cemetery lawns require constant tending. On top of this, we are simply running out of space for bodies. 

Aquamation isn’t the only option to spring up in burial’s place. One is green burial, which buries bodies in shallower graves and uses no embalming fluids. In addition, innovative companies like Recompose are slowly making headway. Recompose turn human remains into soil using a fraction of the energy of cremation. As Katrina Spade, the company’s founder, told The Guardian, Your body is transformed into a usable soil, to grow new life. Your family can then grow a tree and maybe your great-grandchildren will swing from its branches some day.” 

Professor Douglas Davies, leader of the Durham University Centre for Life and Death Studies, says that options like cremation are something of a hangover from the Industrial Revolution; we are now more conscious of the environment and our attitude to death is shifting as a consequence. British ventures like the Green Funeral Company — an ecological alternative to traditional funerals” — seek to provide families with the closure they require while using coffins made of environmentally friendly materials like willow. Sites like Dalton Woodland Burial Ground, who champion green, natural” burials, are not alone in using phrases like giving the body back to nature”. 

At mortuary school, Cattoni was never very comfortable with traditional cremation. It’s a little barbaric,” he says. Once you put the body in it, it’s an 1800-degree chamber; the body will basically start to combust right away.” He doesn’t think people fully appreciate this. He ordered his machine in 2011 and was one of the first people to use the technique to dispose of human bodies. He thinks that it will only become more popular. We’re on the coattails of cremation,” he says. I think that it’s gonna be a very close rival to regular cremation.” Families bring their loved one to a stand-alone building with an office in front of it. If they like, they can close the door and press the start button. There’s no intense heat, so families can get as close to the machine as they want,” he says. They can get as involved as they want.” 

This is key, says George Frankel, CEO of a company called Eternal Reefs, who put people’s ashes in personalised reefs at the bottom of the ocean. People, especially in this day and age, need to feel a sense of involvement.” He thinks that with a traditional funeral one can feel powerless. You have no control over anything. You had no control over their passing and now you’ve got very little control over their memorial process.” 

  • More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.”  More so now than ever we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies.” 

Eternal Reefs is one of the companies looking to put more of that control back into the hands of the people directly affected. There’s a real sense of contribution, personal accomplishment, and the idea of really giving something meaningful back – not just to the marine environment, but to future generations.” Frankel’s mother was the last coffin in their family’s burial plot and his brother the first to be memorialised in reef form. His remains are now in a reef in Texas. Having been a scuba diver, a coastguard, and a fisherman, Frankel can’t think of a better memorial for himself when he dies.

We don’t like talking about death and even when we accept it, we’re squeamish about doing something different with human bodies once their hearts cease to beat. Cattoni thinks that in the US they need to do a better job of talking about the subject, arguing that it’s stressful when families don’t know what a loved one wanted. Kelly Sauer, who used aquamation when her mother died in 2018, agrees. Whenever she discussed death with her parents when she was young, they would assume she was waiting for them to die. People think to a certain extent that they’re immortal,” she says, so why would they think about death and changing things upon their death?” Barbara Kemmis of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) says, Generally speaking, Americans consider death to be an if’ rather than a when’ situation.” In fact, there is a growing movement in the US of people who take this thinking to its natural conclusion and are so resistant to the idea of death that they are trying to conquer it entirely.

As well as a responsibility towards the climate, one of the factors fuelling our desire to abandon traditional death practices is said to be the veneration of choice. We are becoming more and more used to having services delivered to us where we want them, when we want them; why should this stop when we die? Just as marriage has declined in the past few decades, traditional funerals, increasingly perceived by younger generations to be relics of a past to which they do not belong, are being superseded by more bespoke options. When a 2019 Co-Op Funeralcare report revealed that only one in 10 people wants a traditional funeral, the company’s managing director said, More so now than ever before we’re seeing requests for wonderfully personalised ceremonies, whether that be on the 18th hole of a golf club, or having a pet dog present.”

The emergence of novel techniques seems to indicate a shift in which humans see themselves as part of a bigger whole. This is certainly key to Recompose’s mission, whose website says that they aim to strengthen our relationship to the natural cycles while enriching the earth”. In a TED talk, Katrina Spade said, We’re banishing practices that bewilder and disempower, and creating a system that is beautiful and meaningful and transparent.” The idea of participation is central to all of the novel options available: we ought to be as involved in death as we are in life. Among the tenets of The Order of the Good Death, a death-positive movement, are the lines I believe that my open, honest advocacy around death can make a difference, and can change culture, and I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”

  • You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.”  You have two lives. One life that you’re currently living; and the life once you realise you are going to die.” 

Trevor Charbonneau runs two funeral homes just outside the Toronto area. He says that since he started to offer alkaline hydrolysis around two years ago, about 90 per cent of families who would have chosen flame cremation have chosen flameless instead. Consumers need less convincing than the industry. Charbonneau says that aquamation is the biggest change to the funeral business in recent memory. It’s definitely gonna be a big disruptor and has been a big disruptor in our industry.” He too would like to be aquamated when he dies.

Aquamation is legal in only 20 states, and 15 other states are pursuing bills to legalise it. CANA revised its definition of cremation in 2011 to include it. This was, and remains, controversial within funeral service,” says Kemmis, but laws were changing and CANA embraced this trend”.

In Indiana, where Bio-Response Solutions are based, it is still illegal to dispose of human remains through aquamation. We’ve tried,” says Sieber. We’ve tried and tried and tried and tried.” The Indiana funeral board have since mellowed but when Sieber met them seven years ago, they said, We will be the last state to approve this, I promise you that.” Bio-Response Solutions were nearly successful in their fight for aquamation to be legal but a casket manufacturer said at the last minute, falsely, that acid would be going down the drains. He swung the vote against them. 

Perhaps because people tend not to think about death until it is too late, the funeral profession has been allowed to remain conservative. But George Frankel says that the industry is probably at something of a tipping point. I have no crystal ball but next year, five years, somewhere in that timeframe, you’re gonna see an acceleration of all of these niche memorial options becoming the driver of the funeral industry. If they don’t get behind the wheel and start driving, they’re gonna get run over.”

The fact that aquamation and recomposition are comparatively good for the planet will become increasingly relevant as today’s young people decide how they would like to be memorialised and have a say in their parents’ memorialisation. And, says Frankel, Once one person from a family decides to do something different, it becomes 100 per cent easier for every other member of that family to do something different.”

Sieber knows that when her father passes, she will take his ashes on a boat to Catfish Cove in Indiana’s Lake Monroe. She will play his favourite boating music – some country; a little Ziggy Marley. I’ll probably take the whole family out there,” she says. We’ll get boats and we’ll anchor there. I just think it’ll be a way to be with him and remember what he was to our family.” You can hear the emotion in her voice. I feel a little weird talking about it because he’s still here but I tell him all the time.”


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