Alternative cremation option “on hold”

Doubts raised on use of new process in West Midlands

On 18 December 2017 the BBC reported ‘Water cremation’ plans on hold over environmental fears following an earlier refusal* by Severn Trent Water to grant a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council who wished to operate an alkaline hydrolysis plant (“resomation”) for the disposal of human remains. Readers will recall last week’s post on the Law Commission’s 13th Programme of Law Reform on the 14 projects that the it will look at over the next three years. One of these was “A Modern Framework for Disposing of the Dead” for which the Commission explains [emphasis added]:

“New methods of disposal such as Resomation (a process using alkaline hydrolysis to reduce the body to ash) and promession/cryomation (a process using liquid nitrogen to crystallise the body and vibration to disintegrate it into particles) which are used overseas are completely unregulated here.

The legislation governing more traditional methods of disposal – burial and cremation – is outdated, piecemeal and complex. And the law does not ensure that a person’s own wishes as to the disposal of their remains are carried out, leading to disputes where family members disagree.”

Alkaline hydrolysis

The term “water cremation” is clearly an oxymoron, and tends to be used by the media in preference to “alkaline hydrolysis“, the generic name for the process which in the past has been applied to the disposal of animals during outbreaks of foot and mouth disease; as “resomation” now is being promoted for the treatment of human remains. Resomation Ltd is a UK company involved in developing the process and supplying equipment, and  Resomation® is its registered trade mark.

The exact details of the  resomation process differ, but a typical example has been described as follows [emphasis added]:

“Superficially, the resomation process is incredibly similar to modern cremation. In fact, up until the body is committed and passes from view, a resomation service would be no different from that of a normal cremation service. This means that many current crematoria will be able to install a stainless steel resomation tank alongside their existing cremation technology, meaning that they could become dual function in the future.

However, once the body is committed an entirely different process begins. The resomation tank, known as a resomator, is in fact a special type of pressure chamber that allows a body to be immersed in a special solution of potash lye and water – a process also known as alkaline hydrolysis. Gas powered steam generators than build the pressure inside the tank until the temperature rises to the required level and a chemical reaction takes place that separates the body into two distinct substances, usually over a period of three to four hours.

These substances are an ash, consisting of calcium phosphate from the bones, and a bio-fluid that’s made up of salts, sugars, peptides and amino acids. While the fluid is drained off and disposed of, the ash can be collected and either kept in an urn or scattered, much like what happens currently following a cremation. This liquid is free of any genetic material“.

Legislative control

Whilst there are no legislative provisions restricting the treatment of human remains using new processes such as these, it is not correct to state that it is “completely unregulated here“, as suggested above. There is a substantial tranche of environmental legislation which imposes controls on how such processes may be operated in relation to discharges to any of the three environmental media – air, water and land. Any process, even burial, must meet environmental criteria. A recent post considered how the Environment Agency’s new position statements would impact on groundwater pollution from cemeteries, and crematoria have long been subjected to controls on emissions to the ambient atmosphere, particularly those of mercury. Consequently, unless the relevant criteria are met, a “licence to operate” will not be granted as in the case of Sandwell Council.

In Scotland, the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, asp 20, does not presently include resomation, but section 99 empowers the Scottish Ministers to extend by regulations “specified provisions of this Act or any other enactment apply, subject to any specified modifications, in relation to specified ways of disposing of human remains”, [where “specified” means specified in the regulations].

Status of actors involved

A casual reader could be forgiven for adopting an uncritical approach to the various statements made on resomation. Whilst the cynical might suggest “MRDA”, the positions of the various parties involved may be summarized as follows:

  • Severn Trent Water: the competent authority empowered to issue trade effluent permits which identify the acceptable physical and chemical characteristic of effluent from commercial and other properties.
  • Defra and the Ministry of Justice: Government departments providing an interpretation of the domestic and European legislation.
  • Sandwell Council: the prospective operator of the resomation process, with equipment supplied by Resomation Ltd.
  • Water UK:  “membership organisation which represents and works with the major water and wastewater service providers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.
  • Cremation Society off Great Britain: “a registered charity, not conducted for profit…established in 1874. Since the Society’s formation it has worked tirelessly to promote and establish the practice of cremation among all members of the community”.

Comment

Without data on the process, its energy requirements and the composition of the effluent, it is not possible to comment on its environmental credentials or on Severn Trent’s refusal to grant a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council. The source at Water UK quoted in the BBC report said that the organization is “not convinced” on the process and had “serious concerns about the public acceptability”. However, in 2008, the Cremation Society of Great Britain amended its Memorandum and Articles of Association to allow it to promote other methods of dealing with dead bodies, “in particular Resomation which the Society regards as a viable adjunct to cremation due to its number of environmental advantages”. 

There is probably some work to be done to convince the public and some faith communities. Despite the introduction of the Cremation Act in 1902 and the association regulations, cremation was slow to gain acceptance in England and Wales, even less so in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Up to 1925, cremation was used for less than 0.50% of deaths in the UK, and it was 1968 before the number of cremations exceeded that of burials, assisted in part by the end of the Roman Catholic ban.

Faiths groups in the UK have, as yet, expressed no formal opinion on the use of these techniques; whilst it should make no difference to issues associated with the “permanence of Christian burial” since it is the same part of the remains that will be strewed/buried (i.e. the bones), the  issue of respect for the intrinsic dignity of the human body may be an issue, (as it was for the Roman Catholic Church when alkaline hydrolysis was proposed in New York State in 2012). Nevertheless, in view of growing pressure on churchyards and other burial grounds, interest in resomation and the other techniques identified in the Law Commission’s 13th Programme of Law Reform is likely to continue.

Footnote

* We note that whilst in December, a number of news outlets carried the story of the refusal of a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council, this refusal was in fact made in March 2017. There has been to date no indication why this has become of renewed interest to the media.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Alternative cremation option “on hold”" in Law & Religion UK, 21 December 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/12/21/alternative-cremation-opiton-on-hold/

3 thoughts on “Alternative cremation option “on hold”

  1. My concern is the lack of transparency with regard to these new processes. I have asked where they obtained their gas usage figures for existing cremation, but nobody will communicate with me. The fact is that existing gas cremation can be far more efficient than is generally the case. Only two public crematoria utilise a process of holding cremations until a single cremator can be used for around twelve hours. This can reduce gas consumption by 60% and perhaps more. The new crematoria, mostly private, now opening in rural locations, simply don’t have enough cremations to readily meet this requirement. Consequently, they ignore it.

  2. Yes, Ken West makes some very important points. In my mind, there is a big gap in planning law.

    A large number of small private crematoria are gaining planning permission, even on greenfield, green belt land either at initial application stage or at appeal to an independent planning inspector. Somehow they win the argument on “need” etc despite there already being a lot of gas cremators, cemeteries and an ever increasing number of natural burial grounds dotted around the country. They even manage successfully persuade that they have the very special circumstances needed to eat in to green belt land.

    Soon, other new forms of disposal which proclaim themselves as greener than even the most efficient gas cremation and natural burial, will possibly be gaining planning permission too.

    Planners and independent inspectors need more accurate information before they plunge ahead with making decisions which eat into green belt without the data to show that the brownie points the applicants are gaining through their “need” and “green” arguments may not be fully earned.

    Using existing crematoria in the most efficient way possible = greater throughput and “holdover” of corpses as Ken West rightly points out.

    Existing large city crematoria are described to executors searching for suitable funeral dates as “fully-booked for three weeks” or described in planning applications for new ones as “overloaded” when in fact it is the funeral chapels at the crematoria that are too busy for the hours someone has chosen to run them for – not that the gas cremators themselves are working 24 hours per day cremating bodies. There are plenty of locations a funeral service can be held. Surely there are a lot of cremation customers who would be happy to have a funeral somewhere other than the crematorium or for the body to be cremated a few days later at the same crematorium as the funeral service.

    If we really want to be “green” as a nation, the answer is not in jumping blindly onto new self-proclaimed green processes but looking more carefully at what we already have and how to use it better. Of course, there is also a place for the development of better alternatives – as with the development of “natural burial” a couple of decades ago. But, if our “advances” are going to be truly green and successful rather than just empty claims, greater openness with the data and also to continuous development of the scientific knowledge needed surrounding the corpse preparation and disposition processes is needed. It says something that it is much easier to find publicly available knowledge, data and regulations on the disposal of dead animals than it is humans.

    At the root of the issue though is perhaps the fact that true green does not equal big profit or increase in green belt land value.

    Laura Hiller

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