Cremation has become increasingly popular among Canadians as a funeral option. However, with the growing trend toward environmental sustainability, interest in aquamation–or flameless cremation–has been on the rise. Aquamation is a water-based alternative to traditional cremation. Learn more about aquamation and its availability in Canada below.
What is aquamation?
Aquamation is a water-based form of cremation that uses the chemical process of alkaline instead of flames to cremate a body. The technique combines water, alkali (potassium hydroxide), pressure, and heat to create a reaction that accelerates decomposition. It is the same reaction that occurs when a loved one is buried but at a faster rate.
Brief history of aquamation
Aquamation has been around since the late 1800s. Amos Herbery Hanson developed the technique in 1888 to turn animal carcasses into fertilizer. However, it was later used in labs to dispose of contaminated animal bodies.
In 1993, the first commercial aquamation machine was installed at the Albany Medical College to dispose of cadavers. It continued to be used primarily in labs, schools, and animal facilities for several years.
Legalization for aquamation in a funeral setting began in the early 2000s, but commercial use in the funeral industry did not start until 2011. Minnesota was the first state to legalize aquamation in 2003, and Saskatchewan followed suit in 2012. Since then, four Canadian provinces and 20 U.S. states have legalized the process, with several pending legislation in other parts of North America.
The process begins with the body being prepared. Preparation varies depending on the funeral home and local regulations, but this may mean removing things on or in the body. For example, any non-protein-based clothing (e.g., wool) must be removed because it will not be destroyed in the process. Metal implants may also be removed if preferred or legally required, but it is not necessary for aquamation.
Once preparation is done, the body is placed in a stainless steel vessel. The vessel is filled with water and potassium hydroxide (alkali). The quantity of alkali used varies depending on body characteristics, but the ratio for the solution is approximately 95 per cent water and five percent alkali.
The vessel’s contents are exposed to high temperatures (200 to 320 F / 93 to 160 C) and agitation to prevent boiling and help break down organic material. During the process, compounds in the body are reduced to essential organic components and dissolved into the water.
Remaining after this process are bone fragments, a green-brown liquid, and metal implants that were not removed beforehand.
First, the liquid is released from the vessel as wastewater, and the remains and equipment are rinsed with fresh water. Next, metals are removed using a magnet or sieve and recycled or donated. Finally, the bone fragments are pulverized into a fine, white, or tan powder, placed in an urn, and returned to the family. The entire process typically takes between 6 to 20 hours.
How much does aquamation cost?
The cost of aquamation varies between funeral homes. However, it is often a cost-effective option when compared to burials.
A traditional burial cost is around $3,000 to $12,000+. This is because burials tend to include additional expensive services such as embalming, viewing, visitation, committal, etc. Cremation packages can also include these services, which will increase the overall cost.
A direct aquamation (excluding additional services) costs around $2,000 to $3,000 on average. Flame cremation may be slightly cheaper, but the cost differences are minimal, ranging from $800 to over $3,000.
How does aquamation differ from flame cremation?
Flame cremation is when a body is placed in a chamber and exposed to flames and extreme heat. This incinerates organic matter and reduces it to bone fragments. The critical difference between aquamation and flame cremation is the environmental impact.
For example, to incinerate organic matter, flame cremation requires temperatures of 1,4000 to 1,8000 F (760 to 982 C). Therefore, a large amount of energy is needed to reach these temperatures.
In contrast, aquamation reaches much lower temperatures (around 320 F; 160 C) and is a very efficient process. The process uses over 80 per cent less energy than flame cremation.
Flame cremation also requires the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon monoxide, embalming chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde), and mercury from dental fillings and surgical implants.
Aquamation’s lower temperatures make it so that these harmful gases and chemicals do not release into the air. It also does not destroy implants, so they do not need to be removed beforehand (unless legally required). Also, the liquid by-product of aquamation contains natural by-products of decomposition, so it is safe to be disposed of through the sewer or wastewater treatment system.
Another difference between flame cremation and aquamation is the quantity and characteristics of the ashes. Ashes produced through flame cremation are typically grey or brown with a coarse consistency. Included in these ashes are human remains with some ash from the caskets and their contents. There is also about a 1:1 ratio between the weight of the deceased and the volume of ashes. For example, if an individual weighs 150 lbs, they will produce approximately 150 cubic inches of ashes.
In contrast, ashes produced through aquamation are often white or tan, with a smooth powdery consistency. Since a casket is not used in the process and non-protein-based materials are removed beforehand, ashes contain mostly human remains. There is also 20 to 30 per cent more ashes produced. Therefore, someone weighing 150 lbs will create approximately 180 to 195 cubic inches of ashes.
Where is aquamation legal in Canada?
Aquamation is legal in four provinces in Canada – Ontario, Saskatchewan, Quebec, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.
Saskatchewan was the first province to legalize aquamation in 2012. It was legalized in Ontario and Quebec in 2015 and Newfoundland and Labrador in 2019. Below are a few examples of providers offering aquamation in each province.
Aquamation providers in Saskatchewan
- Binkley’s Funeral Service
- Justifiable Cremation
- Swift Current Funeral Home & Crematorium
- Eirene Cremations (as of July 2022)