It would be “wonderful” if people could have their dead body liquefied if they wanted, with the resulting mixture poured down the drain, a leading exponent of educating the public about death has told The Independent.
Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre charity, said adding the process of ‘resomation’ to funeral options would further enhance Britain’s status as “the most liberal, if not the most liberal death country in the world, with regard to the choices we have.”
“If people love the idea of resomation,” she said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was available for them?
“If that’s what people want, then absolutely, why not?”
Her comments are likely to add to the controversy surrounding attempts by Rowley Regis Crematorium in Sandwell, the West Midlands, to become the first UK venue offering the process known commercially as ‘resomation’.
Also known as “liquid cremation” and more scientifically as “alkaline hydrolysis”, this involves placing the body in a pressurised tank and liquefying it using a mixture of water and the alkali potassium hydroxide, heated to 152C.
The resulting chemical reaction is said to reduce most of the body to a liquid that one advocate has described as looking like “weak coffee.”
As with cremation, the bones remain and can be ground down and returned to the grieving relatives in an urn – with the alleged advantage that this bone ash is “pure white” rather than charred as it would be after cremation.
Advocates say resomation is far more environmentally friendly than traditional methods, with a much smaller carbon footprint than cremation which involves heating to temperatures as high as 1,150C.
Resomation, the UK company that invented the ‘resomator’ machine, says the process also avoids the “airborne particle emissions [and] harmful mercury release from dental amalgam [fillings]” that can occur in cremation.
With alkaline hydrolysis, mercury is not released into the atmosphere, and remains as a residue. In the words of a supporter of a US company offering a similar service to Resomation: “You see fake fingernails, glass eyes, dental fillings, mercury, and gold – all that stuff can be recycled.”
The problem, however, seems to be what to do with the coffee-coloured liquid.
As Rowley Regis Crematorium’s planning application made clear, the intention had been to pour it down the drain into the mains sewer, from where it would go to be thoroughly treated before anything could re-enter the water cycle.
But amid headlines including ‘Have a glass of Grandad’, it has emerged that the Severn Trent water company has so far refused to grant permission for this to happen.
The problem seems to be the “yuk” factor.
The Sunday Times quoted one source at Water UK, representing water companies and wastewater service providers, as saying: “It is the liquefied remains of the dead going into the water system. We don’t think the public will like the idea.”
Even though the Resomation company is adamant that: “The sterile liquid effluent is safely returned to the water cycle free from any traces of DNA.”
Ms Inman-Cook said the process of resomation has also suffered from the public and Press associating it with the work of John George Haigh, the acid bath murderer who in the 1940s used sulphuric acid to destroy the bodies of at least six victims.
“Resomation,” she said, “Seems a bit similar, apart from the fact it uses alkali, not acid, and it’s done under heat and pressure, not in some enamel bath in some nasty murderer’s house.”
But, Ms Inman-Cook added, the resomation controversy disguised the fact that Britons had great freedoms in how they disposed of a loved one’s body – if only they knew about them.
She said: “Being British we are in one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal death country in the world with regard to what choices we have and what we can do.
“Other countries are in absolute awe and envy of us in this respect. The bureaucrats, the church, the state and the funeral industry absolutely rule the roost in other countries.”
Ms Inman-Cook said that in the UK, unlike in many countries, you do not have to employ a funeral director, and if you really wanted, you could be buried in a DIY funeral in your own back garden.
Ms Inman-Cook said you just had to register the death properly, have a lawful death certificate, and be able to satisfy the Environment Agency that the body would not contaminate any groundwater.
The Ministry of Justice recommends a minimum of 2ft of soil between coffin lid and surface but, Ms Inman-Cook said, there were no legal depth requirements.
“Six feet under is a myth,” she said. “So is the idea that foxes dig up bodies. There was a case of a fox taking a baby’s body a few years ago, but that was because they hadn’t backfilled the hole after digging the grave, so the animal could just jump in.”
For aerobic decomposition, allowing the body to become mulch and fertilise the soil, Ms Inman-Cook advised, “the shallower the grave, the better. Most ‘natural burials’ are at about 3.5ft.”
Ms Inman-Cook said that exactly how many people you could bury in your garden before you had to apply for planning permission to convert it to a cemetery was “a grey area.”
She said most people who chose this option – the late romantic novelist Barabara Cartland among them – tended to have pretty large gardens or plots of land.
If you were planning to get buried in the garden of your semi, said Ms Inman-Cook, you might want to consider the effect on house prices if future generations of the family tried to sell.
“It could limit the number of potential buyers,” she said, “Although if you were famous, it could increase your house value.”
“The gentry,” she insisted, “Have been burying on their own land for centuries, why shouldn’t everybody else do the same?
“Although, when a man with a back-to-back house in Birmingham and no garden said he wanted to bury his wife in the yard, I did try to talk him out of it.”
There were some limitations in the UK. Ms Inman-Cook said the cost of ensuring proper emissions control made arranging to be burnt on your own home-made funeral pyre almost impossible – despite the huge potential demand.
“I get calls all the time from people who are Hindu or Sikh or who liken themselves to pre-Christian Britons,” said Ms Inman-Cook. “We get hundreds of people a year talking about a Viking ship burial.
“If somebody owned a large loch in Scotland and had a re-useable metal boat they could pile with timber and set alight with a burning arrow, it would be a huge business, if you could deal with the emissions.”
But the bigger problem, Ms Inman-Cook said, was that many people did not know such freedoms for disposing of bodies existed in the UK, and allowed funeral directors to talk them into a “formula funeral”.
Resomation is arguably the most promising recent innovation in providing alternatives to the traditional body disposal options of burial or cremation.
There have also been attempts to pioneer ‘promession’, which is said to involve freezing a body in liquid nitrogen, before using intense vibrations to break it down into tiny pieces.
The Swedish pioneer Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak has said the pieces could be put in a biodegradable coffin in a shallow grave to become mulch, so that “Within a year the organic remains will be fully integrated with the soil, enabling you to bring your precious carbon back into the earth, and … reduce climate change.”
She has, however, admitted that scattering the tiny pieces, at land or sea, might be more problematic.
“You cannot scatter the freeze-dried remains because you are still in an organic form,” she told Wired. “And if you spread it around you will be food for birds, or fish, or whatever. People might think ‘should I eat fish today? What about if I eat dead people?'”
By contrast, resomation, which does allow for some remains to be scattered, is said to be in regular use in three American locations.
But Ms Inman-Cook was still not sure it would catch on.
And if it did, she said, it would probably face the same uphill battle for acceptance that cremation did in the Victorian era.
Bishops condemned it as a “heathen practice”, a throwback to the dark days when pagans ignorant of the word of the Lord, would be burned on funeral pyres.
It took the scandalous actions of a self-styled Welsh druid to start shifting public opinion.
In his youth Dr William Price of Llantrisant, had enjoyed naked hill walking before fleeing to France – dressed as a woman by some accounts – because of his involvement with Chartism.
At the age of 83, now back in Wales, endorsing free love and preferring a scarlet waistcoat and fox-skin headpiece over nudity, he fathered a child by his 16-year-old housekeeper.
But in 1884, the child, named Iesu Grist, Welsh for Jesus Christ, died aged just five months. Dressed in druid robes, Dr Price tried to cremate his dead son on a hilltop, just as the townsfolk were coming out of their Sunday chapel service.
Enraged by this “vicious act of blasphemy,” the chapelgoers dragged the baby’s body from the flames, and vented their fury on Dr Price.
But at the ensuing sensational trial at Cardiff Assizes, Dr Price, who put up a typically theatrical defence, was acquitted by Sir James Stephen who ruled that cremation was not illegal provided no nuisance was caused.
The precedent helped pave the way for the 1902 Cremation Act, which finally stated unequivocally that cremation was legal.
Even then, it took many decades to reach the kind of popular acceptance that now ensures that in some parts of the UK about 80 per cent of funerals involve cremation.
Ms Inman-Cook, who wants a natural burial in a coffin made from recycled newspapers in her family’s “beautiful” private burial plot, said that if it ever happens, public acceptance of resomation may be an equally long-drawn out process.
“I won’t be investing because I don’t think it will be popular,” she said. “But cremation took a long time: give it 100 years, and resomation might be the new norm.”