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'A much gentler process' | Water cremation growing in popularity in Texas

Called aquamation, or water cremation, uses water instead of fire to return the body to nature.

TEXAS, USA — The pandemic is causing many to consider end-of-life plans. More than half of all Americans choose cremation over caskets and traditional burials. Costs and concern for the environment have people shifting attitudes.

Now people are choosing something new – something seen as radical. People are deciding to have their bodies dissolved.

Living in Austin, Vicki Gammon and her husband Chris Thompson treasured being outdoors and did their part to protect the environment.

"We do our recycling. And, we've always been kind of water people," said Thompson.

When the Judson High School graduate's cancer returned last year, she thought she faced a simple decision - burial or cremation. But she discovered a third choice – one some believe is gentler – to have her body dissolved.

"This basically, dissolves you versus, you know, setting you on fire. I think she was kinda more at ease with that," said Thompson.

Called Aquamation or water cremation, it is the process anti-apartheid leader and environmental champion Desmond Tutu chose last month for his remains. With no contributions to greenhouse gases, it's considered a greener alternative to cremation.

It uses water instead of fire to return the body to nature. About 20 U.S. states have legalized the process, most over the past decade. It's not legal in Texas, but Green Cremation Texas will ship bodies to St. Louis for the procedure and then return the crushed bones.

"We're seeing it grow in popularity. I would say to date, we've done maybe a couple hundred families," said Eric Neuhaus with Green Cremation Texas, LLC. 

Aquamation's scientific name is alkaline hydrolysis. The body is placed in a stainless steel vessel and submerged in a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali -  usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The chamber is heated for three to four hours, liquifying everything except the skeleton.

It speeds up the same process a body undergoes in the grave.

"What's leftover is that brittle bone and effluent. Okay, that effluent well, a lot of times, and this is where people get hung up on, that effluent is discharged into the local sewer system," said Neuhaus.

Because the liquified remains are flushed down the drain, Catholic Bishops in states that allow aquamation have written they do not approve of it. 

The Catholic Bishops of Missouri issued this statement that said:

"While the process of alkaline hydrolysis may not be intrinsically wrong, we believe it fails to show due reverence and respect for the human remains of the deceased by subjecting the dissolved human remains to being flushed into the sewer system. The human remains of the deceased by...being flushed into the sewer system."

Aquamation is legal for pets and animals in Texas.

Lilia Fuller opened Eternal Waters Aquamation in Converse last year.
Animals are placed in a basket inside a steel container which is filled with water and alkali – just like the process for humans. 

"We can take care of everything from the smallest hamster to a large Great Dane," said Fuller.

Eternal Waters is where Caitlin Zellers brought the remains of her cat Artie. Zellers is a licensed funeral director.

"Aquamation is a much gentler process, a much more environmentally friendly process than traditional cremation. I am a crematory operator. I know how to operate a crematory. I've had families not want to have their loved ones cremated because to them it feels like they're going to hell because it is a flame-based process. What you get back from an aquamation is finer, it's softer. It doesn't look like the product of a nuclear explosion. We're going to run out of space, honestly to keep burying people. A normal, traditional funeral in Texas,  you're looking at $9,000 to 10,000. That's the casket, the plot. That's a lot of money," said Zellers.

The price for cremation and aquamation is a fraction of that – about $2,000 for each.

"It's cheap, it's affordable. I really really advocate for it to be legal here in Texas," said Zellers.

Chris Thompson is planning on Aquamation for his end-of-life service.  He hopes the laws in Texas change – but right now no legislation is proposed.

"I think I will use the same process, and hopefully by then they don't have to send my body off to St. Louis and there is someplace here and, you know, in this state that can handle that," Thompson said.


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