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Cheating Death-Related Emissions

Green burials are great, but expensive. Cremation is cheaper but creates emissions. Why doesn’t BC allow a cost-effective, eco-friendly alternative?

Michelle Gamage 14 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

When Gail Mitchell dies, she wants to go out with a splash.

The 78-year-old Cowichan Valley resident and her husband have both made plans with a local funeral home to dispose of their remains using alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or water cremation.

Mitchell says she’s attracted to aquamation because of her long commitment to reducing her carbon footprint. Flame-based cremation emits around 320 kilograms of CO2 per body, which Mitchell says she’d be “horrified” about.

Aquamation uses water, warm temperatures and an alkaline solution, like potassium hydroxide, to break down tissue and bones. After a several hours in the solution (from four to 20, depending on if it’s a high-pressure or low-pressure system is used) bodies are completely digested, so that even the DNA is gone, and the remaining liquid can be used as a fertilizer or safely poured down the drain, says Jocelyne Monette, executive director of the Aquamation BC Coalition. The few bone fragments that remain are ground up, placed in an urn and returned to the family, which is the same process used in a flame-based cremation.

The process does not create carbon emissions and, as a bonus, aquamation would mean her artificial hips could be collected, given a wipe and donated to be reused — her final act of recycling, Mitchell jokes.

It's important to have a sense of humour when talking about death, she says.

There’s just one problem with Mitchell’s plan — alkaline hydrolysis cannot legally be used on human remains in B.C.

Mitchell is part of a movement to change that, and hopes she’ll live to see the law updated.

While other provinces and territories, like Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories have legalized aquamation, B.C. regulators have dragged their feet, says Chris Benesch, funeral director and co-chair of the Aquamation BC Coalition, which is spearheading the movement to legalize the process provincially.

If any other industry came to the government and said “we’ve got a way to drop our greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent,” they’d be lining up to allow it, he says.

Aquamation has been used in Canada for around 100 years, often to dispose of pet or livestock remains, Benesch says. During the 2003 Mad Cow outbreak, farmers dug pits to bury carcasses and would sprinkle lime in — which is alkaline and creates the same process, he says.

In B.C. you can legally dispose of a family pet's remains using aquamation. The same machines could be used to dispose of human remains, Benesch says. Human machines just tend to be bigger, he adds.

That means everything is in place to allow for aquamation for human remains in B.C., from WorkSafeBC rules to knowledge about what can and cannot be poured down the drain.

All that’s needed is the government’s green stamp, Benesch says.

But B.C.’s Cremation, Internment and Funeral Services Act says only burial of human remains or cremated remains, entombment of human remains or inurnment of cremated remains is allowed. Everything else is prohibited.

When Saskatchewan legalized aquamation they simply changed the definition of “cremation” to include flame-based cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, Benesch says — a simple and fast path to legalization.

But B.C. seems uninterested in a quick fix, he said.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General told The Tyee it is aware of alternative forms of disposition used in other jurisdictions, but authorizing these changes would require “additional research and engagement — both within the provincial government as well as with municipal and industry stakeholders.”

The ministry has “started policy work that could inform potential future amendments” to the act, but notes this work could get postponed as other, more important tasks, demand their attention.

Christa Ovenell, a funeral director, end-of-life educator and death doula based in Vancouver, thinks this comes down to society’s overall discomfort with death.

No one gets elected by saying “I want your vote and I want to talk about your death,” she says.

We’re a death-denying society, says Ovenell, who is also the spokesperson for the Aquamation BC Coalition. People believe if they talk about death they’ll somehow jinx it.

Ovenell says our reluctance is having environmental consequences.

In 2021 around 41,000 British Columbians died with 82 per cent of them choosing flame-based cremation. That number jumps to 94 per cent in urban centres like Vancouver, Ovenell says. When a body is cremated it produces around 320 kilograms of CO2, so last year flame-based cremations produced roughly 11,000 tonnes of CO2 in B.C.

Another way to think of that is a single cremation produces about as much CO2 as a car would if it drove from Vancouver to the Ontario border, she adds.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to the emissions from wildfires in B.C. (2.8 megatonnes of CO2 in 2020) or from the cars we drive (3.1 megatonnes of CO2 in 2020), but it’s also a number that’s on the rise.

The oldest baby boomers are now in their 70s. As Canada’s largest demographic ages, the number of deaths, and therefore cremations, will also spike.

Conventional burial also comes with an environmental footprint. Cemeteries often use herbicides or large amounts of water to maintain their lush green lawns. Bodies are also embalmed using formaldehyde (one calculation estimates enough formaldehyde was used in the U.S. during burials in 2019 to fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools) and placed in caskets, which are then placed in concrete boxes called burial vaults underground. Concrete produces large amounts of CO2 both during and after its production.

Which is why it’s so important to legalize all possible disposition options now, so that funeral directors are prepared for the spike in, uh, clients, as Canada’s population ages and eventually dies.

People should also be allowed to choose how they want their remains dealt with, Ovenell says. After all, death is the second most important event of your life, following birth, she says.

So let’s look at environmentally-friendly options available across North America.

People walk up a wood chip path carrying a body in a basket, covered by a shroud.
Loved ones gather for a ceremony at the Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery. Photo by Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery.

Green burial

Available in B.C. but not at all cemeteries is a green burial. It's like a conventional burial but without the use of toxic or non-biodegradable chemicals and materials, like metal, fibreglass and cement. Folks can be buried this way in Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, Heritage Gardens Cemetery in Surrey, Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria and on cemeteries on Salt Spring and Denman islands, Ovenell says.

Green burials are the most environmentally friendly disposition choice because no chemicals, machines or fossil fuels are used and it has the co-benefit of providing green space for the living, says Cathy Valentine, cemetery manager at the Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery and board member of the Green Burial Society of Canada.

Monette is critical of burials, even green ones, because she says human bodies release toxins as they decompose, which is why conventional burials place caskets inside of cement burial vaults — to ensure those toxins are kept separate from underground water sources.

For a “direct earth burial” a shallow grave is dug and lined with sword ferns and cedar boughs. The body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and lowered in, then covered with the same earth that was removed from the ground, Valentine says.

The cemetery technically covers 14 acres but most folks are buried within a three-acre plot, with the rest protected from development or logging, she says. Around 1,000 people could be buried here and each grave costs $4,500. One-quarter of that goes into a fund which will help maintain the cemetery once it’s full and no longer bringing in income, she says.

Families are also allowed to bury ashes at the cemetery.

Valentine says she’s heard arguments that it’s not possible to have cemeteries in modern cities because they take up too much space. But almost every city has a golf course which takes up just as much space, she notes.

Cemeteries don’t have to be empty grass fields covering cement boxes, she says. They could just as easily be forests that people enjoy spending time in.

“Our cemetery doesn't feel like a dead place, it feels like an alive place,” she says.

About alkaline hydrolysis

A body is laid in a stainless steel tube and rests in a metal mesh basket during alkaline hydrolysis, which uses water, an alkaline, heat and pressure to speed up a body’s decomposition.

Aquamation destroys pharmaceuticals, pathogens and DNA, Monette says. Non-organic materials like fillings, staples or artificial limbs are undamaged and can be removed after.

The leftover effluent can be used as fertilizer. Monette says she has a friend in Denver, Colorado, who fertilizes his cannabis plants with it, and they grow “the size of a tree.” The material can also be safely poured down a drain.

Alkaline hydrolysis machines are relatively small and require no installation — you just plug them in — so a business could be anywhere, Ovenell adds.

Most flame-based cremations cost around $1,500 in B.C. and aquamation would likely have a similar cost, Monette says.

Composting

The U.S. states of Washington, Oregon and Colorado have legalized Natural Organic Reduction, also known as terramation or composting, Ovenell says. New York and California are also considering legalizing this process.

During this process a body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and surrounded by wood chips and plant matter. One company in Washington says they tuck alfalfa and straw around a person, and encourage family members to bring cuttings from their gardens.

The body is then placed in a container and allowed to compost for a month, with oxygen added to encourage the decomposition cycle. The microbes found on a living body and in the plant material aid with this cycle and help break everything down to a molecular level. What's left is a little less than a cubic metre of nutrient-rich soil which can be returned to a family or donated to be safely spread across forests, parks and gardens.

In Washington, Recompose charges about $9,600 Canadian for this process, and Return Home charges $6,800) — around five and a half times the cost of standard cremation, which is around $1,500. This is also more expensive than a green burial, which costs $4,500 on Salt Spring Island.

Natural Organic Reduction is not legal in Canada but Return Home says they will compost Canadians if they ship themselves to Washington after they die.

Ultimately, faith and the cost of disposition decide what you, or your family does with your remains, Benesch says.

He compares this to driving an electric car — most environmentally conscious folks would do it, but ultimately it’s your wallet that dictates if you're going to ride a bike, the bus, your old car or a new Tesla.

Legalizing aquamation in B.C. would allow people to choose a greener option that didn’t break the bank.

Putting aquamation in motion

During a cool December evening Gail Mitchell logs on to Zoom for a meeting and waves at a panel of faces, whose eyes crinkle as they wave back.

The Cowichan Aquamation Initiative consists of five women in their 60s and 70s who support the Aquamation BC Coalition and are working to raise awareness and support for alkaline hydrolysis in B.C.

Members have written letters to 200 environmental groups, gained the support of the BC Women’s Institute, spoken at climate rallies and written humourous essays about their post-death desires. They talk with their friends and family and are working towards setting up talks at senior’s centres.

The group is also raising awareness for the Aquamation BC Coalition’s petition, which calls for B.C. to legalize the process.

Ultimately this movement is about ensuring people can choose the disposition that feels right for them, Benesch says.  [Tyee]

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