December 1, 2022
New options change choices for that final resting place
Matt Benoit

New options—with varying costs and environmental impacts—for laying the body to rest after death are gradually taking hold, in cities and in rural areas, including the Lopez Island Union Cemetery. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2022)

December 1, 2022
New options change choices for that final resting place
Matt Benoit

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Bellingham resident Ted Van Dyk has received regular advertisements pushing cremation and caskets for the past two decades. 

The 88-year-old, however, finalized his last wishes 10 years ago: he’ll be buried next to his late wife in a Maryland cemetery not far from the other Washington, where he enjoyed a political career that included a stint as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s speechwriter.

Others are making other choices, with some new options.

After South African bishop Desmond Tutu died late last year, his body underwent aquamation.

More technically known as alkaline hydrolysis, the water-based process involves placing a human body into a pressurized stainless steel chamber, filling the container with water and potassium hydroxide—lye—then heating the agitated mixture to 300 degrees for a few hours. 

When finished, what’s left is a dark liquid and calcified bone which is ground to powder and given back to the next of kin. 

 Aquamation is substantially more energy-efficient than traditional cremation. In Washington, it’s been legal for humans for two years, after years of being offered only for pets. The process—so far offered by only a handful of Whatcom and Skagit county funeral homes which contract with a facility in King County—is one of several environmentally conscious methods now offered for laying the dead to rest. 

Bureaucracy, first

Before a funeral home can take possession of someone’s earthly remains, that person must first be pronounced dead.

Washington law doesn’t specifically define who can pronounce death, but the duty is often handled by those you’d expect: doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, paramedics and emergency medical technicians. 

Next, the death must be certified by a medical certifier: a coroner, medical examiner, allopathic or osteopathic doctor, physicians’ assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP) or chiropractor. 

Within two business days, the certifier must report the information through the state’s Electronic Death Reporting System, or EDRS.

Varying methods, varying costs

Regardless of how the remains are disposed of, the cost can be high. Peoples Memorial Association, a nonprofit organization that publishes semiannual reports on funeral and cremation costs in Washington, calculates the cost of a complete funeral service as ranging from $2,515 to $12,110. 

Of the Whatcom and Skagit funeral homes—about 80% of them—that responded to PMA’s most recent survey on pricing, the average total cost of a funeral is about $5,500. 

Costs vary widely. The average for traditional cremation in Whatcom County is $1,917, about $263 less than traditional burial, according to PMA data; in Skagit, it’s $2,084—$1,055 less than the average cost of burial. 

Green burial practices, which rely on sustainable, nontoxic and biodegradable methods, are often slightly cheaper than traditional burials. One local option offers willow and bamboo caskets for around $2,000—substantially less than upper-tier coffins that cost between $5,000 and $10,000. 

In Ferndale, Moles Farewell Tributes and Crematory Center operates a natural burial ground called The Meadows at Greenacres Memorial Park—the first in Western Washington to be certified by the Green Burial Council. 

Aquamation—offered by only one funeral home in Whatcom County and two in Skagit County—costs a statewide average of $2,090. That’s about $400 more than the average for traditional cremation, but almost $1,100 less than traditional burial. 

Washington is one of 15 states that actively practice aquamation, and several more have legalized it. In 2020 Washington also became the first to legalize natural organic reduction (NOR), also known as human composting or terramation. 

That process works by placing remains inside a cylindrical vessel with bacteria and straw or wood chips. Oxygen and heat are added to the vessel, which is occasionally turned. All of this helps the natural decomposition process, turning a body to soil in four to six weeks.

NOR is by far the most expensive disposition method available, running from $3,800 to $7,000, according to PMA. Currently, the state has just a handful of NOR facilities. 

Sig Aase, owner of Sig’s Funeral and Cremation Services in Bellingham, said they offer terramation but have yet to see anyone opt for it. Sig’s is seeing an increase in cremation over burials, however, and Aase said that trend probably has as much to do with price as environmental consciousness. 

“What makes burial a little more costly than cremation is cemetery property,” he said. “People opting for cremation, with an urn, there are more options for it.”

Besides traditional scattering and urns, human ashes are now turned into works of art ranging from blown glass and jewelry to tattoo ink and even diamonds, Aase said.

Green means

The environmental benefits of practices such as terramation and aquamation are substantial. 

Terramation releases no carbon and results in around 275 gallons of soil per person. Aquamation uses no fossil fuel and requires just 10% of the energy involved in traditional cremation, which relies on natural gas. 

Currently, the state’s only aquamation chamber is at First Call Plus of Washington, a mortuary services care center in Kent. 

The aquamation chamber represents a new method, even a new perspective, on laying human remains to rest. (Courtesy photo)

The company contracts with funeral homes across Washington, Oregon and even California, said owner Steve Webster. 

While it takes as much as five-and-a-half hours to dissolve the deceased—about twice the time of regular cremation—Webster said his business is working with their chamber’s manufacturer to further refine the process and bring down process times by up to an hour. 

There aren’t many aquamation chamber manufacturers, either: one each in the United Kingdom and the United States. The chambers are costly, starting at around $240,000, Webster said, and go through between 250 and 350 gallons of water per process, similar to what an average household uses in a day. 

In drought-prone areas such as Southern California, the practice might receive a bit more pushback. But even here, Webster said process water could be re-used several times, or nonpotable greywater or rainwater could be utilized. 

Even the post-process water offers something environmentally friendly.

When hydrolysis ends, the remaining liquid is typically poured down a drain. But the dark-brown fluid, a combination of water and organic substances, is also a viable fertilizer for plants. 

“I don’t believe that it really has a purpose for apples and oranges,” Webster said. “But … we could use it for wheat, for biodiesel, for trees that are used for construction timber, even the flowering pots that we have in our city.” 

While it’s rare, Webster said some families have requested a few gallons of the liquid to use in their gardens, allowing their deceased loved ones to literally propagate one more legacy. 

Changing views

The Catholic Church and other religious organizations have long opposed and in some cases forbidden cremation, but some clergy have modified their views.

Soon after First Call Plus began using aquamation, a Catholic priest stopped by to educate himself on the process. After being shown how it worked, Webster said he conceded the process was actually a pretty gentle way to send someone into the afterlife.

From the water of a mother’s womb to baptism against sin, the priest told Webster, knowing that someone could leave the world through water seemed an appropriate way to complete the life cycle. Sometime later, two bodies showed up with accompanying bottles of holy water to be added to the chamber. Webster isn’t sure if they came from the same priest, but he said it shows the growing acceptance of change in traditional funeral practices. 

“Really, it is an education-based thing,” he said. “We’ve almost seen a general acceptance, across the board, individually, from pastors and priests and other religious groups.”

About 1 in 10 cases involve the departed’s family witnessing the process. A short visitation time to say good-bye is provided before the body is prepared for departure. Webster said families are even given the opportunity to start the aquamation process themselves, courtesy of the computer screen the machine operates on. 

Although aquamation continues to cost more than traditional cremation, Webster said he believes the rising cost of natural gas may make prices comparable within the next decade. 

If business so far is any indication, the process is quickly growing in popularity: after installing its chamber in October 2020, First Call Plus handled about 30 cases through the end of the year. In 2021, that number rose to 300. This year they’re on track to hydrolyze 500 bodies. By next year, Webster expects about 1% of all Washington death dispositions to end with aquamation. 

“We were really planning for about 150 cases the first year, and 50% growth year-over-year after that, for the first five years,” he said. “It was twice what we expected.”

Even though aquamation demand exceeded his expectations, Webster said he wasn’t totally surprised.

“We live in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “We’re surrounded by water. It feels like a very logical choice to have this in this area. It just feels complete to me.”

A personal choice

When the time comes, as Van Dyk and others have noted, there is much more to the decision than cost or environmental concerns.

Were it not for his D.C. background, Van Dyk said, he’d probably opt for cremation in his hometown of Bellingham. But since his wife died 26 years ago, he has considered his arrangements settled. This alleviates the burden on his children, who are spread out across the country.

When his wife and his parents died, Van Dyk was left with the burden of choosing their last wishes for them. Funeral homes, he said, tried guiding him towards more expensive caskets. In one instance, he was double-billed by a funeral home. 

While Van Dyk said he probably wouldn’t have opted for any of the newer disposition methods, he believes the last choices a person makes should be up to them. 

“To each their own,” he said. “I’m always for simple and unpretentious.” 

—Reported by Matt Benoit

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