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Resomation, A Third-Way Alternative To Cremation Or Burial

Another more environmentally friendly option for what to do with the dearly departed has been legalized in a few U.S. states, with several European countries now considering it as well.

Founder of Resomation Ltd. Sandy Sullivan next to a "resomator"
Founder of Resomation Ltd. Sandy Sullivan next to a "resomator"
Benjamin Dürr

BERLIN — It takes several years for a human body to decompose in soil. But it takes a resomator just three hours to do the job. Resomation, or the dissolution of a corpse in a chemical solution, is now widely seen as a faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial.

The body is placed in the resomater, which resembles a cremation oven. It is then sprayed with a solution of hot water and potassium hydroxide. High temperature and air pressure speed up decomposition, and all that is left at the end is bone ash and — as explained by www.resomation.com — a sterile liquid that is returned to the water cycle. The bone ash is placed in an urn.

Up to now, resomation has been approved in a few U.S. states and Canada. The Netherlands and Belgium may soon be the first European countries to allow it. In both countries relevant changes to legislation are being discussed. Germany allows only cremation and burial.

Resomation (also called alkaline hydrolysis) can be compared to the natural process that takes place after burial, supporters say. "Experience also shows that loved ones like the association with water," says John Heskes, an innovation manager at Yarden, a Dutch funeral care company. In terms of the funeral service, it differs little from a service given for someone who has been interred or cremated. The white powder remains of the deceased can be strewn or kept.

Backers also hail resomation as being more environmentally friendly than cremation. "We've been seeing growing demand for and interest in sustainability as far as arrangements for the dead go," Heskes says. That's why Yarden committed itself to finding an alternative to cremation and burial. In the Netherlands, the firm offers funeral services, insurance and other services nationwide and is a major lobbyist for the legislative change.

The parliament in The Hague will be taking up the matter soon. Parliament member Foort van Oosten belongs to the governing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), of which Prime Minister Mark Rutte is also a member. Rutte has asked the minister of the interior to examine the possibility of liberalizing funerary legislation.

Independent of the debate in the Netherlands, the topic is also under discussion in Belgium. Liesbeth Homans, the interior affairs minister in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, is thinking about a similar change to the law.

Undertakers in Germany are critical of resomation. Oliver Wirthmann, general manager of the Board of German Funerary Culture in Düsseldorf, says the method is a pseudo funerary form and a mere marketing trick. "The chemical dissolution of a dead body is not desirable from a moral, religious or grief-psychology point of view," he says.

Burial and cremation have existed worldwide in various religions for thousands of years. Resomation, on the other hand, was developed strictly for economic reasons. Wirthmann adds that "mourning needs a place, and the chemical dissolution of the deceased does not offer that place."

Environmental experts also express doubts. "Resomation is a method that is environmently unfriendly," says Gatze Lettinga, professor emeritus for environmental technology at Wageningen University. "It uses a lot of energy, requires very aggressive chemicals, and leaves extremely dirty, alkaline wastewater." Resomators require several hundred liters of water each time they operate.

Yarden's John Heskes can't say for sure how great the demand in Belgium and the Netherlands really is for this new process. In Germany, Wirthmann says interest is very low. Only about 0.5% of families inquire about alternatives to burial or cremation.

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