There were 481,712 cremations in the UK in 2018, accounting for 78% of all funerals.
And every single one involved incinerating a box containing the deceased at temperatures of around 1,000 °C.
But now there’s a new kind of cremation, known as liquid cremation, that doesn’t involve flames.
Is this available in the UK?
Currently only available in Canada and some states of the USA, liquid cremation involves a chemical process known as alkaline hydrolysis to break down body tissues.
The deceased is placed in a steel chamber and submerged in a mixture of hot water and potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, the chemicals used to manufacture soap and bleach.
The process mimics the natural decomposition of the human body. But rather than eight to 12 years, liquid cremation takes just a couple of hours.
At the end, what’s left are bones and a “syrupy brown liquid”, which is either flushed away or, in Australia, used as fertiliser. The bones are crushed and returned to the family in the form of “ash”.
This could be the environmentally friendly cremation you’ve been looking for
The process is also known as water cremation, green cremation or biocremation because its supporters claim that it’s more environmentally friendly than a regular cremation.
A standard cremation takes about an hour to incinerate a body. In the process 400kg of carbon dioxide is emitted – the equivalent to a 500-mile car journey.
If the deceased had tooth fillings or knee or hip replacements, these also boil off.
In contrast, a liquid cremation allows metal body parts to be recovered and emits just 10% of the carbon dioxide as a regular cremation.
But the environmental benefits are controversial. The process requires more than 1,000 litres of water – around four times the amount used by the average household every day.
In addition, the industrial plants that produce the required chemicals also emit pollutants.
This isn’t a new technique
Although you may not have come across it before, alkaline hydrolysis isn’t new. It was first patented in the US in 1888 and was later used to dispose of animal remains.
Its advocates say it’s simply gentler – more like having a warm bath than the hot fire of a traditional cremation.
While there are no liquid cremation facilities in the UK so far, it may not be long before you can choose to be dissolved rather than incinerated.