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Resomation: the flame-free cremation that could be coming to the UK

Resomation was developed by expert biochemist Sandy Sullivan who had an ambition to offer the public an environmentally friendly end of life alternative to burial and flame cremation. The method he developed was a flame-free cremation, which uses water to break down the body after death. This was named resomation. The Scotland-based company Resomation Ltd, was established in 2007 and from then the awareness for the process began as the organisation sought to see it introduced as a viable cremation option.  

Resomation – also known as alkaline hydrolysis and natural water cremation – has been in the British headlines recently, as the government has been deliberating over how to introduce regulations for this process into the UK. Howard Pickard, managing director of Resomation claims that it is close to being introduced, as he says: “[The] Law Commission published their latest programme of law just before Christmas [2017] within which is  a modern framework for the disposal of the dead of which resomation is specifically referred to.”

The method is not illegal or prohibited in the UK, but at present there are no regulations on how it should be practised. Despite it being on the government’s radar the fear is that it is being put on the backburner as the UK’s impending departure from the European Union takes up much of civil servants time. Pickard says: “There’s a lot of paralysis in government as to working on things that aren’t urgent.”

Furthermore, the water waste from the process needs to be considered and agreed upon by local water companies. While those who work at Resomation say the water has been proven to be safe, Pickard admits that there have been some reservations by different companies. “With water cremation the water is directed straight to a water treatment centre. Then is treated accordingly as the majority of other effluence that goes into the system from factories etc but most relevantly from hospitals and mortuaries- it’s a minuscule amount in relation to the overall wastewater that’s treated – literally minuscule.” Pickard says, “But it’s different and it’s change. We’re engaging with the water industry to ensure they have the evidence base that demonstrates and assures them that there are no risks to public health and there are no issues associated with the process.” He adds that considering how much flame cremation contributes to carbon emissions, it should be a “no-brainer” to introduce a method which completely avoids that harm to the environment.  A recent study into the process proved that water cremation has a carbon footprint seven times less than flame cremation and over three times less than burial.

Process

Natural water cremation – or resomation – uses potassium hydroxide and water to speed up the natural decaying process the body goes through at the end of life. A corpse is placed in a woollen coffin or shroud made from biodegradable materials and then positioned in a water cremator. The process combines a water and alkaline-based solution as opposed to fire to break down the body and the remaining water returns to the natural cycle. It is longer than a flame cremation, taking three to four hours for the body to fully break down, but is gentler and still eventually reduces the body to bones which are then converted to ashes like with flame cremation. Resomation also allows mercury within a deceased’s dental work to be recovered and safely disposed of. As the end result is the same as any other widely recognised cremation method, mourners are still able to scatter the remains as they usually would. From a client’s and outsider’s point of view, there will be little difference from what the general public has already become familiar with.

The ceremony

As well as the end result being the same as a flame cremation, mourners can still have a traditional funeral ceremony with resomation. The firm says that the only difference comes at the point after the coffin is committed from view and the body is placed in a water cremator instead of a flame cremator.

Resomation in the UK

So far, Scotland is the only country in the UK which has amended its primary legislation, giving it the power to regulate new and alternative methods of disposition such as resomation – which is what England and Wales are working towards. Further primary legislation is currently being explored in England and Wales so that it can be offered within a modern appropriate regulatory framework. On 18 December 2017, the Law Commission published a ‘modern framework for the disposal of the dead’, laying the foundation for resomation to be brought in. This publication was welcomed by Resomation.

The possibility and existence of the method gained mainstream media attention when a cremation site at Rowley Regis, Sandwell applied for planning permission to extend the existing crematoria to build the UK’s first water cremation site. “ The Council is really innovative and embracing of new environmental technologies. They support this innovation at the end of life as they want to be the first in the UK to offer natural water cremation for their families in the local community.” Pickard says. Although it is not yet an official option in the UK, the equipment is being built in Leeds, West Yorkshire,  and has already drummed up interest from local funeral directors and families.

While the idea has been put into the public forum and families have shown interest, Pickard says the priority at the moment is to work with the funeral industry to raise awareness and garner support. He said: “We haven’t fully engaged the public directly at this point because we need to manage expectations about when it will be available as an end of life option. We have however, been working very closely with funeral directors, celebrants, and industry leaders to share more information about the process and recently hosted a “Water Cremation Open Day” at our factory in Leeds. This was well attended and gave industry colleagues the chance to ask questions and see the machines for themselves. We are open to doing more of these to raise awareness and demonstrate the benefits it will bring to the industry and the wider public.

The Bradshaw crematory in Minnesota

Resomation around the world

While the UK is still working on bringing natural water cremation to the funeral trade and the public, at the time of writing, it is already permitted in 15 American states since 2011 with Florida being the first state to accept it. It is also available in three Canadian provinces. Resomation also claims there are an estimated 6,000 families in the US who have chosen water cremation as an end of life option. Pickard says: “Through our installations in the US we’ve served many families so it is well proven and they’re running daily with numerous cycles.”

Back in Europe, Resomation claims that one of Holland’s leading funeral organisations has done an extensive independent report on the method. It is the third report that has been done on resomation and the company says that it has been given “wholehearted endorsement”. The organisation adds that funeral directors, investors and political figures alike have shown an interest in introducing natural water cremation to their countries as well, with the company suggesting there is a current demand for flame-free cremation in the Netherlands, China, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Ireland.

What’s next?

When it comes to the UK, natural water cremation is yet to make a full impression and will not do so until it is formally introduced. There is still a way before that happens but that does not mean that the country, public and funeral trade alike cannot prepare for a new body disposal method in the meantime – whether it is alkaline hydrolysis or otherwise. Resomation is simply one of the few burial, cremation or body disposal methods which have been discussed over time and as consumers respond more to eco-friendly practices in life and death, it appears to be fated that alternatives will be offered to the trade sooner or later.

Resomation has attempted to bring their message and method to the funeral trade, most recently with its showcase at the June Cremation and Burial Communication Event (CBCE) in Newcastle. This was followed by an open day, where the equipment that is destined for America was put on display. “The challenge that is there at the moment is simply change. However, we are seeing more people  slowly become accepting of change,” Pickard says. “This is a new method in some respects, a disruptor from the way it is done.”

While it has taken some time to get the sector to come around to the idea, Resomation has not been met with much resistance from funerary professionals. Pickard says that following the CBCE event, many funeral directors expressed their support for the process. Additionally, the company is currently campaigning, bringing awareness to the benefits of the methods to society as a whole. Through funeral professionals, Pickard hopes to “engage with the public”,  “educate them” and “open their minds to a new environment” particularly when it means contributing to a better ecosystem. Furthermore, he believes that the introduction of natural water cremation does not mean taking over what is already in practise, altering what funeral directors have become accustomed to and steering people towards this method, but instead opens the population up to other choices which may be more suited to their morals or lifestyle. Pickard says: “At the end of the day if the public don’t like it, they won’t choose it.”

As well as this, resomation has been endorsed by the Cremation Society for over 10 years, with a line on its website reading: “In 2008, the Society amended its Memorandum and Articles of Association to allow it to promote other methods of dealing with dead bodies, in particular resomation which the society regards as a viable adjunct to cremation due to its number of environmental advantages.”

Stating that he feels funeral professionals “should continue to provide support to Resomation and others”, Pickard concludes: “There is a lot of support across the industry and across the country from the general public. We are harnessing this support as we continue our efforts to get this process introduced in the UK and we encourage people from across the industry to get in touch with us to find out more for themselves.”


This feature was originally published in the September issue of Funeral Service Times

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