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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: You can be environmentally friendly after death

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about.

Anne Weston is founder of Green Burial Project, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the community about the environmental, financial and spiritual benefits of green, or natural, burial. For further information, see www.greenburialproject.org.

When Los Angeles undertaker and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty was asked to rank body disposition practices by their relative “green-ness,” she said, “Green burial is like riding a bike, wet cremation is like driving a Prius, fire cremation is like driving an F-150 and conventional burial is like driving a Hummer.” You get her point, I think, but what the heck is wet cremation? Sounds like an oxymoron.

Fire cremation, as you likely know, is the process by which a body is reduced to an ash-like powder by fire, most often a fossil-fuel fire.

Wet cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is the process by which the body is reduced to an ash-like powder by the use of a 5 percent alkali solution (potassium hydroxide and sodium), heat and pressure. The process dissolves the soft tissue, leaving bone fragments, medical devices, amalgam fillings and a sterile solution. The solution is then cooled, pH-balanced and disposed of through the wastewater treatment system. The medical devices and metals are recycled, rather than vaporized, and the bone fragments are dried and then pulverized as in fire cremation. Both processes typically take around two hours, depending on the mass of the body, the temperatures and pressure.

So why bother with a new technology when fire cremation is one-third the price and works so well in much of the world? Because, as Caitlyn told us, it’s a Prius rather than an F150. Wet cremation reduces your final carbon footprint compared to fire cremation by about 75 percent, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota. It uses one-eighth, depending on the source of your information, the energy of fire cremation. There is no coffin or alternative container. In fact, since the process works only on protein-based material, even your shroud materials are limited. Some funeral homes and medical schools use bio-plastic sheets to cover the body. With no container, we have saved the energy and resources needed to create it and then to destroy it. There are no emissions, so there is no need for the filtration or abatement systems used on fire cremation equipment.

At about the same time that Carrboro began allowing green burial in the Old Town Cemetery — a return to a very old and traditional burial practice — wet cremation, a relatively new technology became available in North Carolina. At this time, only one funeral home in the state uses wet cremation, which is Clay-Barnette Funerals, Cremations, and Aquamation Center of Shelby. But the expansion of body disposition options becomes more important as we question the limits to which we push our environment. When making decisions about body disposition, we can now factor in not just our family traditions, but our values and respect for the environment. We don't have to choose the Hummer if the bike and the Prius are available. 

 If you live in Orange County and want to make your voice heard on something you care about locally, email city@dailytarheel.com. 

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