Controversial liquid cremation sought in Ohio

Controversy over new body disposal method .

Some in the funeral business are seeking state approval for a new and controversial technique for disposing of human bodies through chemical decomposition.

The technique, alkaline hydrolysis, involves placing a body inside a stainless-steel cylinder machine that is used to accelerate natural decomposition, shrinking years into hours. The process uses lye to break down corpses into liquid, proteins and dry bone residue. The liquefied remains are then discharged into a sewer system. It’s a process used commonly on livestock, but it has been only slowly accepted for handling human remains.

Joseph Wilson, owner of Bio-Response Solutions, an Indiana company that makes the AH machines, said the remains are environmentally safe and the liquid residue ends up being treated in a wastewater treatment plant. “The whole earth is a processing system that processes waste and recycles it back.”

The Catholic Church is opposed to the idea, and that opposition has prompted State Rep. Ron Maag, chairman of the government and elections committee, to remove language from House Bill 481 that would have made AH an acceptable form of disposition in Ohio. Maag, who is Catholic, said he felt uncomfortable about the process and spoke to a Catholic church leader.

“The process didn’t seem respectful to me and that’s when I contacted the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to get their opinion,” Maag said. “They objected to that type of disposal of the body.”

“(Catholic leaders) think dissolving the body this way is not showing respect for the body,” said the Rev. Earl Fernandes, dean and assistant professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati. “We do believe that the body is going to be raised up in glory in the last day and the soul will be reunited with it. We don’t want people to think that the human body can just be disposed of like any other material.”

The Catholic Church dropped its opposition to cremation in the mid-1960s, but Fernandes said church policy still prefers burial.

Jeff Edwards of Edwards Funeral Home in Columbus was the first to perform alkaline hydrolysis on human bodies in Ohio after purchasing an AH machine in 2010.

A low-temperature machine can cost approximately $150,000 and can handle two bodies a day, Wilson said. A high-temperature machine can cost about $200,000 and can handle four bodies a day.

Edwards performed 19 dispositions before state regulators questioned if it was an acceptable form of final disposition. “He proved that our system worked,” said Wilson, who sold Edwards the AH machine.

Edwards filed a lawsuit in March 2011 against the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors after ODH quit issuing permits for AH body disposals. A judge ruled that ODH and the board had the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of disposition of a human body, as set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.

“I was so far ahead of the curve that it left the potential to cause a disruption in the volume of other funeral homes’ cremation,” Edwards said. “If I am the only one offering AH, that is a problem to (other funeral homes).”

If legislation regarding the use of AH does pass, Ohio would be the ninth state in the country to regard the process as an acceptable form of human disposition, according to Vanessa Niekamp, the state board’s executive director. Minnesota was the first state to pass legislation in 2006; it is also legal in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland and Oregon.

Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Fla., has offered bio-cremation since October, according to John McQueen, president and CEO. He predicts that by the end of the year, his business will have done more than 200 “flameless cremations.”

A burial in Florida could cost $5,000 to $15,000, approximately $3,000 for cremation and more than $3,000 for bio-cremation, which is similar to the AH process, McQueen said.

The Ohio Department of Health has not taken a position on the process and is studying its impact on public health, said Tessie Pollock, ODH spokeswoman.

Maag said he doesn’t think the state legislature will pass a bill regarding AH approval “because of the opposition of the Catholic Church.”

Tommy “TR” Routsong, president and CEO of Routsong Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Kettering and Centerville, said the issue should be left up to consumers if the method is safe for public use.

“There needs to be separation of church and state on this particular issue,” he said. “What happens if there are some religions that would want AH? You are not going to make this a religious issue. It’s a consumer issue. Why restrict trade on a customer that wants it? You’re eliminating competition, so you are driving up the price to the consumer because they are left with fewer options.”

Both Routsong and Rob Rue, co-owner and vice president of Littleton & Rue Funeral Home & Crematory in Springfield, are waiting to see what AH policies the state creates.

Rue likened the AH controversy to the cremation controversy that popped up during the 1970s. Rue said his father, Tom Rue, received some criticism when he was the first to build an on-site crematory in Clark County in 1986. It was a move the funeral home decided to make after its customers started asking for cremation and the funeral home got tired of contracting with an outside company.

“I think the real reason why people don’t like it, is because they don’t know about it,” Routsong said. “I think it’s less invasive than fire cremation.”

Routsong would like to own an AH machine because he sees it as another option for those not wanting burial or cremation and he believes it takes less energy to operate than a crematory. He sees other benefits of the process including the ability to recycle artificial hips, knees and shoulders.

Some items like pacemakers have to be removed before cremation, but not with AH, because of the high risk of their batteries exploding, according to Routsong and Wilson.

Wilson promotes AH as environmentally cleaner than cremation because certain metals have to be removed from the body prior to cremation. Some of these metals include mercury. “When you burn it, it releases the mercury and that creates mercury pollution,” Wilson said.

Ohio saw a 4 percent increase in cremations in 2010 from the year before, with 38,404, according to the most recent research by the Cremation Association of North America in Illinois.

Nationally, there were 998,547 cremations in 2010. That number is expected to increase by more than 13 percent to 1,132,795 by 2015, according to the cremation association’s data.

In 2009, the association revised its definition of cremation to include alkaline hydrolysis. “We saw AH as a safer and viable option mode of disposition,” said Barbara Kemmis, the association’s executive director.

Rue is keeping an open mind, but has no plans to buy an AH machine. “We’re just watching it to see how the state and public react to it,” Rue said. “We’re not closed to any idea that is both ethical and moral to care for human remains.”

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