What is Aquamation?

A deep dive into an aquatic alternative to more traditional cremation methods.
What is Aquamation?

Choosing between burial, donation to science and cremation is one way to honour your loved one’s values even after they’ve passed. With the advent of things like the mushroom burial suit, there has never before been so much choice when it comes to post-life services. And, we can now add aquamation, or water cremation, to that list!

What is Aquamation?

Aquamation is also known as ‘water cremation’, ‘alkaline hydrolysis’, ‘bio cremation’, ‘green cremation’ and ‘resomation’ (aquamation sounds the coolest though, right?). It’s essentially a newer water-based technique for processing a loved one’s remains after they have passed away. The technique has, however, had several other applications since the 1990s, and can be traced all the way back to 1888 when it was originally patented.

How does Aquamation work?

During aquamation, the body of the deceased spends several hours submerged in a pressurised stainless steel cylinder that contains a liquid solution of water (around 95%) and a strong alkali such as potassium or sodium hydroxide. The resulting high pH level of the solution makes it very alkaline and hence very effective at breaking down the organic material of the remains.

The reaction that occurs through the combination of the gentle water flow, the pressure, a slight increase in heat and the alkalinity of the solution itself mimics natural decomposition which might otherwise happen underground (over a much longer time!).

What items are permitted in the Aquamation chamber?

Unlike cremation, there is no casket used in aquamation, and only 100% silk, wool or leather can be put in the chamber. Also unlike cremation, medical devices do not need to be removed. They can remain with your loved one and will be separated from the remains at the end of the process.

Aquamation vs Cremation

The kind of cremation we’re more familiar with – and that is the most popular – is a flame-based process, as opposed to a liquid-based one. It uses heat (from flames) that builds up in a fit-for-purpose oven called a retort, to break down organic tissue. Since the human body mostly consists of water, exposure to the high temperatures causes the organic material of the body to evaporate or sublimate into gas. The bones that remain are further processed and transformed into memorial ash that can be thoughtfully sprinkled over an area with sentimental meaning, or kept close in other creative ways.

What happens after aquamation?

What’s left after aquamation is almost identical to what is leftover in traditional cremation: bone material (that may be just slightly lighter in colour) and other substances that were not organic, such as implanted medical devices. Any devices will be removed before the collected bones are dried out in an oven and then physically broken down into a white, greyish ash. These ashes are typically placed in an urn and given to loved ones who then decide the fate of the remarkable remains, just as would happen in flame-based cremation. 

Who might want to be aquamated?

Aquamation operates at much lower temperatures than cremation since heat is only used as a catalyst for the natural chemical reaction taking place. People may therefore see water as a gentler “way to go” than flames, or simply prefer an alternative to burial that doesn’t involve fire. Others might just want to be on the cutting edge of technology and innovation, even in death!

Both types of cremation create human ashes that can be displayed in an urn or sentimentally scattered, so nothing is taken away from this sacred event for those left behind.

Where is it available?

Water cremation is available in some states of Australia, but it is not yet widely practised.

Wrap Up

There is no right or wrong option when it comes to laying a loved one to rest. Each person is unique and so the process should align with their values, preferences and desires. By spelling these out in a Will, you can wash away the worries of loved ones who would otherwise be left wondering whether you want earth, water or fire.

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