In Oregon, there are five legal ways to lay the dead to rest. Bodies can be embalmed and shipped out of state; donated to scientific research facilities; cremated; buried; or dissolved. Yes, you read that correctly: When you die, the flesh can literally be dissolved from your bones.
The scientific name of the process is alkaline hydrolysis, though it’s more commonly known as aquamation or aqua cremation. If you want to avoid the mildly gory details later in this piece, here’s the short version: Like flame cremation, aqua cremation reduces the body to bones—it just uses water instead of fire. It’s legal in more than a dozen states, but Oregon was one of the first to legalize it in 2009, and it’s one of the only states with the proper facilities to actually perform the procedure.
Deon Strommer, the owner and president of Northeast Portland’s First Call Mortuary Services, has worked in the death care industry for more than four decades. One year ago, he purchased what he says is the first commercially available, high-pressure alkaline hydrolysis machine west of the Mississippi. (Strommer is sure to specify that it’s the only high-pressure machine, since there’s a low-pressure model in Roseburg.) Since debuting it last year, Strommer says he’s conducted around 200 aqua cremations.
Portland has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to death care. In 1901, Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial installed one of the first flame crematories west of the Mississippi. (Modern flame cremation came about in the 19th century to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, but didn’t gain traction in the industry until the 1980s.) Back then, explains Wilhelm’s family services advisor Josh Runyon, flame cremation was just a “kooky idea.” Though some people might feel that way about aqua cremation, Runyon believes it’s the future for death care.
“Portland is so death-forward,” he says. “News is spreading and people are really getting excited about it... I think it’s going to become the most popular option.”
Right now, Runyon estimates that 90 percent of those pre-planning their funeral arrangements with Wilhelm’s are choosing to be aqua cremated in Strommer’s machine.
When I visit, I’m surprised by the conspicuousness of First Call’s headquarters, which sits at the end of a residential cul de sac overlooking I-84. The parking lot holds a fleet of gray vans used for removal of “decedents” (a fancy word for dead people), which is when a body is transported from the place of death to the mortuary, like vehicular psychopomps escorting souls to the afterlife. Strommer is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met; in addition to running First Call, he formerly worked in agribusiness and is a longtime member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team—a federally organized group of morticians, fingerprint specialists, radiologists, hygienists, dentists, and DNA specialists who forensically identify decedents and return their remains to their families after large-scale, mass-casualty disasters. He spent seven months in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (hitchhiking into town from Baton Rouge), and more recently travelled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Strommer estimates that First Call handles about 8,000 deaths each year, but the company doesn’t serve the general public—his clients are local funeral homes, who outsource services like removals, hearse rentals, motorcycle escorts, shipping remains, embalmings, flame cremations, and now, aqua cremations. First Call is also home to the largest refrigeration unit in the state, which can hold up to 200 decedents—something that could come in handy if a disaster like the forecasted Cascadia earthquake were to strike.
After researching aqua cremation for more than a decade, Strommer bought his alkaline hydrolysis machine from an Indiana-based company called BioResponse Solutions. His machine—affectionately dubbed “the Green Machine”—is dedicated to former science teacher Iris Green, the first person to be aqua cremated in Portland. (It’s inscribed “a science teacher in life and death” in her memory.)
“This is Karl. He was my maintenance guy,” Strommer explains when I ask about a photo of a man taped near the machine. “He helped me set up the machine and in February found out he had cancer, and they gave him two weeks to a month. I mean, it was that quick.... Anyway, he died, and we had that conversation before where he called and said, ‘I just wanted to make sure you’ll put me in Iris when I go.’ So it was an honor to take care of him, but it was a hard thing. You never would’ve seen any dust on that machine when he was here, because this was his baby.”
Alkaline hydrolysis was patented in 1888 as a way to turn animals into fertilizer, but in the 1990s, labs in the UK adopted the technique to safely dispose of infected carcasses during the mad cow epidemic. Around the turn of the century, aqua cremation became a popular method of body disposal for pet owners.
The basic purpose of alkaline hydrolysis is to accelerate the body’s natural decomposition process while simultaneously neutralizing any potential pathogens. Here’s how it works: The body goes inside a tubular, stainless steel machine that “doesn’t eat cotton or polyester,” Strommer explains, “so we go in the way we came into the world: naked as the day is long. I always keep a hospital gown for modesty, but we also have a silk wrap—the machine will digest silk, wool, and leather, as long as it’s organic material.”
Okay, time for the mildly gory details: Once the body is inside the chamber, it’s filled with 95 percent water and five percent potassium hydroxide (what the pioneers called “potash”). Then the mixture is heated at high pressure to avoid boiling, and in about four hours, this biochemical reaction dissolves hair, flesh, muscle, marrow, and blood. All that’s left are metal implants; dental fillings; “bone shadows” (pure calcium phosphate “ashes”—also called “cremains”—that are soft enough to crush by hand); and effluent, the tea-colored liquid byproduct of the body’s breakdown into its most basic components of sugar, salt, peptides, and amino acids. “There’s no RNA, there’s no DNA,” Strommer says of the effluent. “You couldn’t take a sample and tell that this was grandma.”
In about four hours, the biochemical reaction dissolves hair, flesh, muscle, marrow, and blood.
Although they crumble to the touch, the bones must still run through a processor called the Cremulator for uniform consistency. Strommer says the ground cremains from aqua cremation are white and fine, like powdered sugar, while the cremains from flame cremation are more like cornmeal.
One major advantage of aqua cremation is that metal implants can be recycled, including pacemakers, which contain lithium-ion batteries that will explode in a flame crematory. Also, because gold melts at such a low temperature, it’s next to impossible to return gold dental fillings to families after a flame cremation. One family chose aqua cremation “just because they were insistent on having the gold teeth,” Strommer says.
There’s a common misconception that aqua cremation involves melting bodies with acid, but the alkali catalyst in potassium hydroxide is actually a strong base (the opposite of an acid). And though potassium hydroxide is a chemical, it’s also an FDA-approved food ingredient that’s used to make beer, soap, and other beauty products.
Because it’s completely sterile, the effluent is legally allowed to go down the drain. But at First Call, Strommer has installed a large holding tank to collect the nutrient-rich liquid, which he sees as an added benefit to aqua cremation: If it’s not claimed by families, he gives the effluent to local farmers to use as fertilizer. It smells truly awful—the closest approximation I can think of is a million rotten clams baking in the sun—but, Strommer emphasizes, “I’m not telling people to put it on their corn and tomatoes. What I’m saying is it’s great for your plants and trees.”
(Side note: If the idea of human goo going down the drain seems gross or environmentally hazardous, remember: During the embalming process, untreated blood is drained from the body and routed to a wastewater treatment facility. With aqua cremation, the effluent is routed to the exact same kind of wastewater treatment facility. So... dealer’s choice!)
Over the past year, Strommer has done presentations on aqua cremation around the Portland area, and says he’s learned that most people don’t actually understand what happens during a traditional flame cremation. “When we converted from a burial society to a cremation society about 100 years ago, there was a certain ‘ick’ factor—‘You’re gonna burn my mother?’—and people would visualize flame on the body,” he explains. “Now people don’t even think of it. In fact, as I speak to groups, what I’m finding is that about half the group thinks that the body is placed in an oven and baked or dehydrated down to bones. They don’t even know what ashes are; they don’t realize that what they’re receiving is the calcium phosphate, the ground bones. So I’m needing to educate that [flame cremation] is a direct flame on the body.”
Strommer says the “jacuzzi tub effect” is what gets many people interested in aqua cremation: “It’s gentler. Flame cremation is very harsh on the body—I mean, you’re burning a body.” Families are allowed to be present at the beginning of the aqua cremation, but Strommer says initiating the process is a little anticlimactic, compared to firing up a crematory: “With this, it’s as quiet as a washing machine.”
Another selling point is how aqua cremation impacts the environment. In 2016, cremation surpassed traditional burial as the most common form of body disposal in the US. Oregon’s statistics are even higher: In 2017, the state’s cremation rate was 77 percent, and Multnomah County’s was 75 percent. That’s a big deal! The American death care industry hasn’t changed that drastically since the Civil War, which is when the handling of the dead began to shift from families to death care professionals.
In modern America, 20 million feet of wood and four million gallons of embalming fluids go into the earth each year, with the latter threatening to leach carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin into groundwater. Though it’s more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, a single flame cremation releases as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile road trip, and can also emit pollutants like fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury.
Comparing flame and aqua cremation, Strommer says, is like “comparing a diesel truck to a Prius. It uses one-tenth the energy, with 90 percent less carbon footprint,” he explains. “To me it’s a no brainer.” However, it’s worth noting that aqua cremation isn’t a perfect solution for humanity’s dead body problem: The process still requires a massive amount of water (300 gallons!) and an increase in demand could result in increased production at pollutant-spewing chlor-alkali plants.
At an Earth Day event last year, Strommer says someone accused him of “‘spouting off what the manufacturer told you, that it’s one-tenth the energy and 90 percent less carbon,’ and I had to admit, ‘Well yeah, I am.’” So he began researching the environmental impact and found a scientific study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands that compares every method of body disposition (except for body compositing, which was recently legalized in Washington). It confirmed what he already believed—that aqua cremation has the lowest effect on the environment.
The only drawback for interested consumers is that aqua cremation is currently about $500 more expensive than flame cremation, due to the high price of the machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Strommer expects those prices to level out, partly due to clean-air legislation that he says could raise the price of flame cremation.
That potentiality is disputed: Kate Kondayen, the deputy communications director for Governor Kate Brown’s office, says the legislation in question—House Bill 2020, a market-based cap-and-invest program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—would not directly affect crematories.
But Strommer says any rise in the cost in fossil fuels would impact the operation of his crematory.
“It may not be for another generation, but I do see [aqua cremation] replacing flame cremation,” he says. “As people understand it, I think they’re going to prefer this option.”
Los Angeles-based mortician, author, and activist Caitlin Doughty agrees that aqua cremation has the potential to disrupt the death care industry. “Every new kind of death disposition has to go through a period of the funeral industry and the public acting like it’s some bizarre science fiction horror-show of disrespect and failing morals,” she says.
That’s already happening: The Catholic Church has said aqua cremation is “not a respectful way to dispose of human remains,” and the procedure’s legalization was repealed in New Hampshire after lawmakers gave speeches conjuring images of “sewage lagoons.”
“The script is identical, and therefore predictable,” Doughty says. “When more people start seeing the benefits, the tide of public opinion will turn, and more in the funeral industry will have to accept aquamation to serve public demand.”
When he dies, Strommer is opting for natural burial—his body will go straight into the soil, without being embalmed, on his family’s plot in eastern Oregon—but he says aqua cremation would be his second choice. And despite his personal preference, Strommer’s passionate about getting people information before they’re confronted with grief and the other challenges of dealing with an unexpected death.
“I got into the industry to help people through a difficult time,” Strommer says. “I feel very comfortable talking to people about dealing with death. I want to give them options.”