Hey Mr. Green, Is Alkaline Hydrolysis More Ecofriendly Than Cremation?

By Bob Schildgen

October 27, 2015

 Mr. Green summarizes the impacts and availability of alkaline hydrolysis.

Photo by iStock/Alexnika

Hey Mr. Green,

I had planned to be cremated, but research led me to alkaline hydrolysis, which seems less environmentally damaging. Please summarize its impact and availability.

—Karen in Darien, Illinois


Cremation takes the energy equivalent of about 12 to 24 gallons of gasoline, depending on the size of the decedent, while its carbon dioxide emissions average about 150 pounds. There's also concern about the mercury from dental fillings boiling off: By one estimate, it's two to four grams per corpse. At today's cremation rate, this equals 2 or 3 percent of total U.S. mercury emissions. Still, cremation is far better than conventional burials involving caskets, concrete vaults, toxic formaldehyde, and maintenance of cemetery lawns till the last toot of the apocalyptic trumpet.

Alkaline hydrolysis beats cremation by baking you in caustic potassium hydroxide at a much lower temperature, reducing you to softened bones and teeth (rendered into ashlike powder) and a sterile liquid stew that is flushed away. Filled teeth can be plucked from the remains and recycled. Lower temperatures help reduce carbon emissions; alkaline hydrolysis's emissions are just 10 to 15 percent of cremation's. The process is legal in 10 states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wyoming. 

If you cringe at the prospect of going up in smoke or down the drain, you can be buried without embalming. For a scrupulously green interment, contact the Green Burial Council. (Jews and Muslims who strictly follow funeral traditions don't have to worry about cremation or embalming, since both practices are forbidden.) —Bob Schildgen