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Explained: What is aquamation, the green alternative to cremation chosen by Desmond Tutu?

Archbishop Tutu, who followed a modest lifestyle, had always been passionate about protecting the environment. He wrote many articles and delivered speeches which called for urgent steps to be taken to tackle the climate crisis.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
January 4, 2022 3:39:11 pm
Desmond TutuDean of the cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Weeder, speaks during the state funeral of late Archbishop Desmond Tutu at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa (Reuters)

The body of Nobel Peace Prize winning Anglican archbishop and anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu underwent aquamation, a green alternative to traditional cremation methods, in Cape Town on Saturday.

Family, friends and politicians gathered at St George’s Cathedral as Tutu was given a state funeral. In keeping with his wishes, his body underwent alkaline hydrolysis instead of traditional cremation methods being followed.

What is aquamation?

Aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is a process in which the body of the deceased is immersed for a few hours in a mixture of water and a strong alkali in a pressurized metal cylinder and heated to around 150 degree centigrade.

The combination of gentle water flow, temperature and alkalinity accentuate the breakdown of the organic materials.

The Cremation Association of North America (CANA), an international non-profit organisation, defines alkaline hydrolysis as “flameless cremation”. Considered to be an environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body, the process is also known as water cremation, green cremation or chemical cremation.

The process leaves behind bone fragments and a neutral liquid called effluent. The CANA website states, “The decomposition that occurs in alkaline hydrolysis is the same as that which occurs during burial, just sped up dramatically by the chemicals. The effluent is sterile, and contains salts, sugars, amino acids and peptides. There is no tissue and no DNA left after the process completes. This effluent is discharged with all other wastewater, and is a welcome addition to the water systems.”

The process of aquamation The process of aquamation (Source: Cremation Association of North America)

How long has alkaline hydrolysis been in use?

The process was developed and patented in 1888 by Amos Herbert Hanson, a farmer who was trying to develop an ingenious way to make fertilizer from animal carcasses.

The first commercial system was installed at Albany Medical College in 1993. Thereafter, the process continued to be in use by hospitals and universities with donated body programmes.

It was only in 2011 that the process was used in the funeral industry, at two funeral homes in Ohio and Florida.

Why did Archbishop Tutu’s body undergo aquamation?

Archbishop Tutu, who followed a modest lifestyle, had always been passionate about protecting the environment. He wrote many articles and delivered speeches which called for urgent steps to be taken to tackle the climate crisis.

Tutu had always wanted a simple funeral ceremony, and expressed his wish for a cheap coffin and an eco-friendly cremation.

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According to UK-based firm Resomation, the process of aquamation uses energy which is five times less than fire. It also reduces by about 35% the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted during cremation.

The process is a greener alternative as it uses significantly less fuel and has an overall lower carbon footprint than cremation.

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