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Water Cremation – one answer to climate crisis

Sandy age 3 between 2 big brothers – youngest of 11

If you’ve been watching BBC’s Years and Years– a near-future view of our world – you may have seen the funeral in episode 3 where the chat goes (to paraphrase) ‘this isn’t a normal crematorium you know, it’s an aquatorium’.

Fire or water?

Turns out, given the option, 80% of people asked would choose water cremation over flame cremation. I would. It’s better for the environment. 

Well don’t be too surprised if the future is closer than you think. Pioneering Scotsman, Sandy Sullivan – I’m going to call him an inventorpraneur – has been working on water cremation for the last decade.

I first met Sandy at the Scottish Parliament in 2012, around the time I was launching Final Fling. I was proud to discover the inventor of this green innovation was a Scot. Of course he was! We are the nation of inventors after all. Back then, he told me about Resomation – his idea for disposing of a body in water rather than flame cremation, a process that’s very familiar and the finale of choice for most of us.

Going Dutch

Since he began on his mission, 20 states in the US have happily embraced this innovation. In the Netherlands, their Government has been going through the 9 year long, laborious process to make legislative change to support ‘resomeren’, as they say in Dutch.

And what’s happening in the UK? Well, Scottish and English law is different.

In Scotland, the process is legal. Here our 2016 Burial and Cremation Act is the primary legislation that gives Ministers the power to regulate. So basically, if anyone wants to install a resomator, they’re good to go.

In England and the rest of the UK, resomation is lawful but unregulated. Sandy has been working with the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities – representing UK burial and cremation authorities  including local councils– to put in place robust methods of self-regulation so that resomation might go ahead. This is exactly how it was for flame cremation for the 30-40 years it was in place before it was regulated in 1902. The Law Commission recently has mentioned it’s on their radar.

How does resomation work?

Resomation reduces the body to ash using water, pressure and heat. At the end of the process, unlike flame cremation that adds to greenhouse gas, there is just ash, pure water and nutrients that can go back into the soil.

Where a flame cremation takes 90-120 minutes, a water cremation takes 120-240 minutes depending on system choice. It’s also less expensive to run.

What are the benefits?

With Resomation there’s 6 times less CO2output pumping out into the atmosphere, no nitrous oxide gases (NOx) or mercury emissions. In this time of climate crisis, that’s significant. 100% of the liquid from a water cremation can safely go down the drain after the process. It is sterile and there’s no DNA in there, no ‘bits’: it’s 100% organic liquid. Along with the soft soap produced in the process, it even helps clean the pipes leading to the water treatment plant. The pure water waste can go back into our rivers and the nutrients can go back into fertilizer. Compare this to current practices. A flame cremation generates 600% more greenhouse gas. Half the population opt for embalming to preserve the body (mostly needlessly) for the short time between death and funeral, generating untreated waste (contaminated blood, tissue and DNA) that goes down the drain. Think on.

What are the costs to the environment?

The average person in the UK uses 3,400 litres of water a day (technical alert: including embedded water). It takes only 1,500 litres to water-cremate a body. So, you’ll even be saving water in your last act.

And here’s a beautiful fact. Researchers in the Netherlands in a report for the Dutch government have calculated the cost of preventing impacts on the environment:

Burial                            €63

Flame cremation         €53

Water cremation        €  3

The research seems to suggest water cremation is the way to go and the public like the sound of it and see it as “gentler” than flame.

What’s holding us back?

Conservatism. As ever. Especially around death and dying, we’re rubbish at embracing change and moving forward.

I’m sure there will be a tipping point in the next couple of years. All it takes is one visionary leader to start the trend. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scotland’s leading funeral brand led the way on this one. Once people have the choice, I think the rest will be history.

I’d like to think Scotland – ever the field-leader and left-fielder – could lead the rest of the UK on this. It would be great to see a Billy Connolly or Sean Connery champion this one.

What next?

Sandy is to Resomation what I am to Final Fling – a change champion, a passionate advocate for better endings. As he told me, he’s dogged and he’s hanging onto hope. He’ll get Resomation up and running here or die trying!

Sandy won the John Logie Baird award for innovation in 2009 and the Observer Big Idea Ethical award in 2010.

I would love to see Resomation available within the year in the UK.

We’ll keep you updated.


Click here to view the full blog on Final Fling.