A bill that would allow disposing of dead human bodies by dissolving them in a caustic chemical bath was approved without debate Tuesday by the Wisconsin Senate. The proposal, opposed by Wisconsin’s five Catholic bishops, now goes to the state Assembly.
Senate Bill 228 expands the definition of cremation to include use of alkaline hydrolysis (AH), a process that uses water, lye, heat and pressure to turn body tissue into a liquid slurry that is disposed in the sewer system. What remains are bones that are pulverized and returned to the family in an urn. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) opposes the bill, contending alkaline hydrolysis does not uphold the God-given dignity of the human body.
“The heart, mind, flesh and bones of a human person are all elements of a unique creation, down to the DNA, which must be honored even after death,” said Kim Vercauteren, WCC executive director, at a recent public hearing. “Our concern is that with alkaline hydrolysis, remains are washed into a wastewater system as though the body created by God never existed. Wastewater does not honor the sacredness of the body, nor does it allow the grieving to honor the dead after disposition.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Patrick Testin, a Republican from Stevens Point, said the issue is consumer choice. “A number of Wisconsin funeral directors are receiving more and more requests for flameless or water cremation,” Testin said at the bill’s public hearing. “Those funeral directors may only accommodate such a request by having the body transported to a surrounding state where such a process is permitted. …I believe in allowing consumers choices. And if a consumer chooses flameless cremation, I would like to empower Wisconsin funeral directors the means to fulfill that choice.”
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation, bio-cremation, flameless cremation and resomation, is backed by funeral directors, cremation trade groups and manufacturers of the chemical-bath devices that dissolve flesh from bone.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) uses water, heat, pressure and the chemical agent lye to dissolve the human body. Lye, also known as caustic soda, is used in various industrial applications such as soap making, and as a drain cleaner. The technology has been widely used in Europe to dispose of cattle that died from mad cow disease. The first human use in the United States was by medical schools to dispose of cadavers used in laboratory instruction.
In the funeral industry, alkaline hydrolysis uses a tube-shaped vat to dissolve the body. The machine is filled with around 100 gallons of water, along with the lye. The water is heated to 204-302 degrees and the chamber subjected to pressure to speed the process. Depending on the temperature and pressure used, dissolution can take as little as 5-6 hours and as much as 14 hours, according to Bio-Response Solutions, an Indiana company that markets what it calls an “aquamation” system.
The body’s tissues are reduced to an effluent or slurry likened to the consistency of motor oil. The solution is discharged into the wastewater treatment system. The bones left behind are then pulverized into powder and returned to the family in a manner similar to remains from combustion cremation.
Proponents of alkaline hydrolysis view the process as more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than traditional cremation. Bio-Response Solutions says its system uses 90 percent less energy than regular cremation, creates no greenhouse-gas emissions and returns 20 percent more ash (pulverized bone) to the family. The process destroys pathogens and toxins in the body, such as chemotherapy drugs. The resulting effluent is clean, sterile and free of DNA, according to industry literature.
While some 20 states have approved alkaline hydrolysis as a disposition method, opposition by the Catholic Church helped keep the option from becoming or remaining law in numerous other states, including Ohio, Texas and New Hampshire. In Indiana in 2015, one lawmaker who owns two casket companies derailed an alkaline hydrolysis bill after arguing before the Indiana House that the process was inhumane. In Wisconsin, the bishops are relying on Church teaching to guide their opposition to the legislation.
“Catholic teaching is centered on the life and dignity of the human person because each person is created in the image and likeness of God,” Vercauteren said. “The human body is a physical, material manifestation of God’s image and shares in that dignity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 364). Even in death, we show reverence and compassion for God’s creation by praying for and laying to rest the departed and caring for those grieving the death of a loved one.”
Vercauteren said alkaline hydrolysis is an “aberration from the traditional treatment of human remains” because most of the remains go down the sewer. The Senate bill exempts the sterile-liquid byproduct of AH from being classified as cremated remains. “This liquid is not considered part of the cremated remains, though it includes all the organic matter that makes up a human person,” she said. “Senate Bill 228 treats much of the deceased as waste, not cremated remains under the law.”
Traditional cremation has rewritten the landscape of the U.S. funeral industry since the 1960s, when the Catholic Church liberalized its rules on burial. Cremation overtook casket burial in 2015 as the preferred disposition of dead bodies. The cremation rate is projected to reach 78 percent by 2040, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Of the 3.9 million deaths projected for 2040, only 605,100 will involve traditional burials. Part of the explanation lies with a loss of religious faith, according to industry surveys.
In mid-1963, two weeks after the election of Pope Paul VI, the Holy See softened its stance on use of cremation. Proponents argued that the practice no longer had anti-Catholic hostility, and the Church had never declared the practice itself contrary to the faith. New funeral rites issued in 1970 allowed for cremations, but the Church continued to favor full-body burial. The 1983 Code of Canon Law emphasizes traditional burial, but it allows for cremation “unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”
Alkaline hydrolysis would likely worsen a crisis brought on by the widespread use of cremation: families who choose to keep urns with cremated remains in the home instead of interred in the blessed ground of a Catholic cemetery. The Catholic Church insists that human remains be buried in cemetery ground, inurned in a columbarium niche or entombed in a mausoleum. Remains may not be separated, scattered or used in memorial jewelry. Many Catholic cemeteries now offer programs with free interment of cremation urns for families who never buried their loved one.