Mere Corpse Disposal

Alkaline hydrolysis has a new name, to make dissolving bodies palatable

Cremation is a practice against which I regularly rail. I maintain that the Vatican’s 1963 relaxation of the ban on cremation by Catholics, as long as they didn’t resort to it to deny the resurrection of the body, was wrongheaded. Today’s Catholic cremator may not even think about “the resurrection of the body” or how it fits into his practical “all souls go to heaven” universalism. He may not espouse that wrong doctrine. Instead, he espouses other ones. His actions implicitly say that the human body is something sub-personal and that the “important part”— the soul — has “gone to heaven.” They also imply that survivors face a waste management problem: what to do with this 100-something-plus (often very plus) carcass about to rot?

If it’s a waste management problem, cremation is the most economical means of disposal. Incineration is what you typically do with trash. You bury treasure (as the Gospel tells us); you burn garbage.

But the “economical” price tag is why many Catholics resort to cremation: compared to burial, it’s cheaper. That’s arguably an issue the Church should be doing something about (besides building columbaria at diocesan cemeteries). The Church could be using its financial leverage to attempt to tackle this problem.

Recently, the waste management problem has taken on a new dimension. Not only do we need to dispose of this body, but we should mind how we might best do so from an environmental standpoint. Burial, some say, wastes land of “Mother Earth.” Cremation is so fossil-fuel fired.

That’s why a whole new series of even more radical means of affirmatively destroying the human body have hit the market. Pitched for their “environmental friendliness,” they promise to complete “the circle of life” (somebody’s been watching too much Disney) by turning this useless body into useful compost.

One of these aggressive body-destruction techniques is “alkaline hydrolysis.” The human body contains a lot of water. Water, alkaline chemicals, heat, and pressure are combined in alkaline hydrolysis to break down the body into a residual liquid, an effluent. Having been heated, it’s allegedly sterile. The effluent can therefore be disposed as so much wastewater.

This gives new meaning to going down the drain.

What interests me is the potential for repackaging the process.

Writers like George Orwell noted the vital purpose euphemism plays to mask reality: changing words lets us feel so much better about what we’re doing by taking harsh edges off. “Killing your unborn child” is so cruel; “terminating your pregnancy” sounds so much better. It makes the process all about you by simply eliminating mention of the child you are eliminating.

Prolife columnist Paul Greenberg once trenchantly observed that “verbicide precedes homicide.” You have to kill off words before you can start killing off people. People have to be Untermenschen (or “clumps of tissue”) first before you can feel right about killing them.

Well, in the case of alkaline hydrolysis, it seems we want to make dissolving bodies palatable, too.

Because we fancy ourselves “enlightened” folk who “follow the science,” scientific sounding names generally have initial appeal. “Alkaline hydrolysis” sounds so official, rigorous, controlled, and analytical. Those whose fancy themselves intelligent are moved by such innovation.

But after deconstructing traditional practices, the “enlightened” folks now have to convince that hoi polloi to do what they’re doing. “Alkaline hydrolysis” doesn’t quite seem to turn on the petit-bourgeoisie, much less the beer-and-social-media set. It’s too dry, too “clinical.” Its pushers need something catchier.

I just discovered the catchier, non-clinical word: aquamation.

The July 10 website of La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (an excellent Italian website) carried an article on “Aquamation: The Last Frontier of Green Burial” [see here] Bussola’s article is completely critical of this practice. Please read it (by applying Google Translate).

I’m not against “green burial,” i.e., the burial of a human body in a degradable (i.e., wooden) coffin without embalming, allowing nature to take its course. That’s how Christians buried their dead for centuries. What I do object to is the pulverization, dilution, in short, affirmative effort to destroy the body, especially in the name of placating Gaia and/or saving a buck.

Aquamation. Sounds so much like “cremation,” which already enjoys widespread approval. And who’s to say you shouldn’t prefer liquids over solids? Are gases the next step?

(By the way, if you want to save Uncle Joe’s tattoos before turning him into wastewater, see here).


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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