What is Alkaline Hydrolysis, or Resomation?

Sandy Sullivan, Founder-Managing Director of Resomation Ltd.

Sandy Sullivan, Founder-Managing Director of Resomation Ltd.

Do you follow crime scene television shows, or are you a fan of the Mob? If so, then you may know about a procedure that dissolves bodies with lye. But, you may not realize that this process is making a main-stream splash (no pun intended) as a means of ‘green burial.’

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as resomation in the funeral industry, actually is a natural process that occurs in bodies buried in shallow pits within neutral or alkaline soil. But, this method is a very slow process aided by soil bacteria. Alkaline hydrolysis also occurs in your body when food is digested with the benefit of gut enzymes. Any sports or exercise fiend can tell you that this digestion produces a small amount of heat to help digest the food. This process, also, helps to burn calories and helps to maintain a healthy metabolism when small amounts of food are eaten over a period of time.

Now that you know why the green movement provides a nod of approval to resomation, as the process seems natural. The real process, which speeds up the natural process, is described scientifically by ALN Magazine:

Alkaline hydrolysis is a simple, natural process by which complex molecules are broken down into their constituent building blocks by the insertion of ions of water (H2O), H+, and OH- between the atoms of the bonds that held those building bocks together. The process occurs in nature when animal tissues and carcasses are buried in soil of neutral or alkaline pH. In this case, alkaline hydrolysis is aided by the digestive processes of soil organisms. Alkaline hydrolysis also occurs in our small intestines after we eat; the complex molecules of proteins, fats, and nucleic acids are hydrolyzed with the aid of digestive enzymes that function most efficiently at a slightly alkaline pH (~pH8.0 to 8.5). Historically, alkaline hydrolysis has been used to study the chemical structure of biological molecules, to prepare skeletal remains for study, and make soaps from animal fats by cooking the fat with lye to release the fatty acids, then cooling the mixture to precipitate the fatty acids as their sodium salts.

Alkaline hydrolysis as an improved alternative to incineration for disposing of waste biologic tissues and animal carcasses is based on the same chemical reaction, with strong alkali and heat used to speed the process.

According to Estate Planning Bits, the resomation process goes like this:

The process, called alkaline hydrolysis, uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch from big stainless-steel cylinders similar to pressure cookers. Lye is a caustic, alkaline chemical, which means that it dissolves sticky substances like fat, and has a high degree of reactivity with other materials…Alkaline hydrolysis leaves a dry bone residue that is quite similar in appearance and volume to cremated remains. This residue can be returned to the family in an urn or buried in a cemetery.

The process also produces a sterile liquid that can be tossed down the drain, much the same as current funeral practices where bodily fluids and embalming liquids are washed down the drain (although many do not approve of this latter practice). However, unlike cremation, this process emits no toxic gases into the air.

While the resomation process has already gained popularity in Europe, funeral homes in the United States have been slow to adopt the technology. Some balk at the $400,000 price tag for a resomator, some doubt whether it is truly eco-friendly and still others who are interested in offering resomation are trying to get the process legally approved.

In the meantime, Resomation Ltd has made a name for itself as a company that handles this type of burial in the UK. In the U.S., the process is currently legal in Minnesota (see information about Mayo Clinic resomation practices), and was legal in New Hampshire until a recent 1 year moratorium was imposed on the legislation to allow the technology claims to be studied and validated before public use.

If you have questions about resomation, you can contact the Mayo Clinic (contact information in the above link) or Reformation, Ltd. to learn more.

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