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Alternative methods of disposition

There have been two newer methods of disposition that have been gaining popularity in some Canadian provinces and the United States.  These are Alkaline Hydrolysis and Natural Organic Reduction.  Alkaline hydrolysis has been around for over a hundred years but only used by the funeral profession for less than 15 years.  Natural organic reduction is much newer and has only been licensed in the US over the last few years.  Currently, neither of these disposition types are legal in Alberta and therefore are not being offered by Alberta funeral services businesses.  The legislation in Alberta will need to be amended in order to accommodate these disposition types.  The AFSRB believes it is important to include accurate, unbiased information about these for consumers.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

Although there are various definitions of Alkaline Hydrolysis the one that we will use is a technical process that reduces human remains to bone fragments using heat, water, chemical agents, agitation and sometimes pressure.  Alkaline hydrolysis is not a type of cremation or water cremation, it is a separate and distinct disposition type.  In Alberta, cremation is defined as incineration and alkaline hydrolysis cannot be captured under this disposition type.

The alkaline hydrolysis process takes place in a chamber which is air and watertight.  The body may be wrapped in a shroud or placed in nude.  There are specific types of materials that can safely be placed in the chamber such as silk or cotton which won’t interfere with the process.  There are different manufacturers of these chambers and the exact process may vary between chambers.  There can be significant differences in the length of time the process takes based on the type of chamber as well as the size of the individual. 

The alkaline hydrolysis process mimics natural decomposition (in an accelerated timeframe by using chemicals).  Bone fragments and a liquid (effluent) are the end result of the process.  The liquid is discharged into the wastewater system (which most articles do not mention).  The bone fragments are removed from the chamber, dried, and then processed into the hydrolyzed remains. 

Generally, the hydrolyzed remains have a larger volume than cremated remains, so the size of the urn chosen may need to be larger.  Hydrolyzed remains are lighter in color than cremated remains.  These remains can be interred in a cemetery, placed in a columbarium, or scattered in a location where permission has been granted to do so. 

Alkaline Hydrolysis has been described as a gentle process which could be misleading for consumers.  There are certain interventions that must be done in order for the soft tissue of the human remains to be properly and completely reduced, which some would not consider to be a “gentle” process.   

Natural Organic Reduction

Natural Organic Reduction is defined as the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.  It has been referred to as human composting, but this is not the preferred term for this process.  Natural Organic Reduction is not available in Alberta as legislative changes are required in order for it to become a legal form of disposition here.

The Natural Organic Reduction process takes place in vessel where the human remains are placed along with other organic materials such as wood chips and straw.  There are different companies that offer natural organic reduction and the process will vary between these companies.  In some cases, the vessel is agitated/rotated to facilitate the process and in other cases, heat is used.  Generally, bone will be manually processed into finer pieces to speed up the breakdown.  The amount of soil that will be produced at the end of this process is approximately 0.75 cubic meters (about 10 wheelbarrows full).  The soil will then be cured for a few weeks at the facility.   The soil will then be ready for use. 

It is important to check with the Natural Organic Reduction facility on what happens with the soil.  Some facilities will let the family take some of the soil, others will charge a fee to the family for the soil, and others allow the families to donate the soil to enrich the land near the facility.