'Bio-cremation' cuts carbon footprint, backers say

  • November 27, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - A good Catholic can pressure cook their dearly departed in an alkaline solution so that most of the body can be flushed down the drain before the remaining clean white bones are crushed into a white powder, put in an urn and buried in consecrated ground, according to a Catholic ethicist.

This technique for disposing of human remains is variously known as “alkaline hydrolysis ,” “bio-cremation” or “resomation.” Backers claim the process has a carbon footprint 20 times less than regular cremation. It’s not yet legal in Canada, let alone approved by any Canadian bishop, but Transition Sciences Ltd. is betting Canadians — including Catholics — will warm to the newest technology in mortuary science.

“There’s a lot of interest from the Catholic faith,” claims Transition Sciences president Allen Bessel.

That interest rests on the smaller environmental footprint of alkaline hydrolysis — especially when compared with cremation. A crematorium stays above 1,000 degrees Celsius for two-to-four hours to burn an average body. That eats up 92 cubic metres of natural gas and 29 kilowatt-hours of electricity, releasing 400 kilos of carbon dioxide into the air, not to mention the mercury and other toxic metals when old dental fillings, pacemakers and joint replacements are burned with the body.

Nor is a conventional burial environmentally friendly. It can take 100 years or more for an embalmed and casketed body to break down. Formaldehyde used in the embalming process is carcinogenic. The process also releases toxic cancer drugs the deceased may have been taking into the environment, as well as prions — the mutated proteins that cause mad cow disease.

On top of that, there’s the hectares of hardwood buried every year in the form of caskets. According to the Casket and Funeral Association of America , each year the United States buries 70,000 cubic metres of hardwood.

Ethicist Sr. Renée Mirkes, director of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., claims that once you get past “the yuck factor” it’s clear there’s nothing unethical or un-Catholic about alkaline hydrolysis.

“Sometimes the yuck factor puts us in touch with a very important, reasonable objection,” she told The Catholic Register. “But that particular reaction, I think, is just natural, normal and doesn’t necessarily carry any moral weight.”

In a paper published last year in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly , Mirkes makes the point that alkaline hydrolysis merely speeds up the natural process of decomposition.

In a chemical cremation, the body is placed in a steel tube and covered by a liquid solution that is heated to about 180 degrees Celsius and kept under 42,000 kilogram-force per square metre. The result is a sterile, non-toxic fluid which is released into the waste-water system, and clean white bones. Just as with cremation, the bones are crushed into a fine white powder and returned to the family in an urn.

Is this morally good or bad? Mirkes concludes it is morally neutral.

“The way we dispose of a human corpse takes its essential moral character from the motive or intention for which the particular dispositional method is chosen,” Mirkes wrote in her paper.

Which means that if a person has good reasons for choosing this method of burial, including the good of the environment, it should be licit (providing the bishop of the area permits it) to use alkaline hydrolysis.

Catholic Cemeteries – Archdiocese of Toronto is waiting to see how the approvals process goes for Transition Sciences and Park Lawn Cemeteries, the group proposing to put the first resomation unit in Canada into operation. Bessel expects to have provincial and municipal approvals by the spring.

“We’re not opposed to it. Environmentally, it seems like the right thing to do. The big question is, will it be accepted by the Catholic community?” said Catholic Cemeteries manager of marketing Amy Profenna.

Across Ontario more than half the population now chooses cremation, but old attitudes among Catholics persist, and less than 20 per cent of the people interred at Catholic Cemeteries choose cremation.

Cremation has been approved in most Catholic dioceses since the early 1960s. The old prohibition was based on the 18th-century custom of Masons choosing cremation as a way of denying the Resurrection and rejecting church teaching. But the church has always taught that God is perfectly capable of raising our bodies from dust, just as He created human beings from dust in the beginning.

So long as there is no implication that the person choosing cremation is not denying the Resurrection, and assuming the remains from cremation are buried in consecrated ground, the church does not normally object to cremation.

Mirkes believes the same logic should apply to the chemical equivalent of cremation.

Given the cost of one resomation unit, Catholic Cemeteries is much more interested these days in the green burial movement. Green burials eschew embalming. If a casket is used, it is made of easily bio-degradable wicker. In other cases the body is buried in a shroud made of natural fibre, such as cotton or silk. Instead of upright stone markers, graves are marked with more modest, flat markers that eventually meld with the environment. Green burial cemeteries are left in a natural state to become forest, though the same records are kept of the location of each burial as is required of all cemeteries.

“This is actually a hot topic right now in the bereavement sector,” said Profenna. “It’s so much more hot than the resomation process.”

In many ways green burials are not only more natural than either cremation or conventional burials, they are also more traditional. Embalming with formaldehyde only goes back to the 1860s and didn’t become a normal practice until well into the 20th century. A green burial funeral could be done in perfect accord with traditional Catholic practice, Profenna said.

So far Catholic Cemeteries hasn’t had a request for a green burial, nor has it set aside any cemetery land for the kind of natural landscaping that would go with green burial practices. But Profenna believes it’s just a matter of time.

Bessel believes that when Catholics look carefully at the resomation process they’re going to discover it is “calm and respectful.”

“There’s no pretty way to dispose of a human body. So if we get past the esthetics, let’s look at how it affects our faith.”

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