Cremation Controversy and Tradition
Writer: Cattie Khoury
Published: August 15, 2012
Cremation has been a source for controversy in the world for as long as records can count. Its acceptance was not granted in America until the 1870’s, despite its 20,000 year old age. Cremation services traditionally entail burning a deceased body at extremely high temperatures. The body then decomposes entirely, until all that remains are mineral compounds and ash. The remains physically look like dust and can be stored in virtually anything, or even scattered. Though the practice has been granted acceptance in various cultures and religions, a new controversy branching off of cremation has been started.
Liquid cremation is the process of heating a deceased body until all that remains is a liquid reduction of the body. Alkaline hydrolysis is the formal name of this practice. It requires putting a deceased body into a machine named the Resonator, which is filled with potassium hydroxide and water. It is then heated to a high temperature of 180 degrees Celsius and runs until all that remains is a greenish-brown liquid mixture and soft calcium. The pollutants in the body, such as mercury, are extracted. Because the pollutants are extracted, it is claimed to be an eco-friendly mixture. The bones remaining are turned to ash. These remains are given back to the deceased person’s family. Next, the greenish-brown mixture is poured into sewage systems. The scientists who created this process claim that the entire operation poses almost no ecological harm. “The effluent is sterile and carries no DNA,” said Steve Shaal, a manufacturer of bio-cremation vessels. “There are no harmful prions or pathogens being transmitted. According to these scientists, they are completely destroyed in this process by chemical and heat.” There are no mercury emissions associated with bio-cremation. With liquid cremations, there is no major consumption of landmass unlike the amount associated with traditional burials. Also, fewer trees are used because caskets aren’t involved in the process. Despite its claimed ecologically friendly benefits, there is still controversy. The controversy brings up moral, religious and political issues.
Some of the most commonly practiced religions in America have only recently accepted the traditional cremation practice into their religions. While the Catholic Church recently permitted traditional cremation process a little over 10 years ago, the possible idea of liquid cremation is currently frowned upon. The Catholic Religion is imprinted with their belief on resurrection of the soul and body after death. Because of this belief, they believe there is a proper way to dispose of the body. They believe that cremation is blasphemous and is a declaration in the disbelief in the resurrection of the body, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation_in_Christianity. The controversy over the practice of traditional cremation was settled over 10 years ago, but the new branch of cremation has started another controversy. At a Catholic Conference in New York City, a bill was created disapproving the practice. In the bill it said, “It is therefore essential that the body of a deceased person be treated with respect and reverence. Processes involving chemical digestion of human remains do not sufficiently respect this dignity.” However, there are some branches of Christianity that do approve of the practice. Protestant churches were the first to approve of traditional cremations services in the Christian religion. Currently, there is no documented or known opposition to the practice of liquid cremation within the Protestant religion. Judaism holds a very strong opposition to the practice of cremation. Jewish law strictly prohibits the practice of cremation. It is seen a dishonor to the body. There is also a cultural opposition to the practice. During the 1900’s, millions of Jewish people were sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust. These people were innocent, yet were sentenced to death just because of their religion and culture. They were punished by death, through cremation. This has left a terribly bad taste in loads of Jewish people about cremation. The new branch of liquid cremation has not changed the opposition to the practice.
Religious convictions aren’t the only existing sources causing opposition to the practice. There are political questions stirring the pot. The practice is extremely young, with the first bio-cremation occurring in 1998. Because of its young age, some scientists believe there are more questions yet to be answered. These questions refer to the potential health risks to the environment. California assemblyman, Jeff Miller, proposed a bill in 2010 to legalize the practice of liquid cremation. He was confronted with questions from scientists that he did not know the answers to. He removed his proposal shortly after. The lack of known factual information about the young practice caused a lot of people in other states to be skeptical about liquid cremation. One man who practiced liquid cremation in his Ohio funeral home became a lone ranger in the practice. Jeff Edwards, the funeral home owner, hit his 19th performance of the practice when Ohio lawmakers began questioning the morality of it. Soon after this, they stopped issuing permits for the practice. Around the United States, in cities and states from Nevada to New Hampshire, lawmakers and citizens were becoming skeptical of alkaline hydrolysis.
Critics of the practice target the missing information about the process. They claim that there is no scientific proof concluding that there truly is no ecological harm from the process. To determine whether or not the process poses harm to the environment would require factual information on the process, and according to some, that information has not been presented. “We would have to determine the quality of the waste and if it is treatable through our system. We haven’t seen any data or been approached by any of the industries,” said Jayne Joy, director of environmental compliance for Eastern Municipal Water District.
However, this did not cease the battle for legality. The year after his previous proposal, California’s Jeff Miller created a new one. After meeting with various scientists and water quality officials, he created a new, redirected proposal targeting safety concerns and other questions he didn’t have scientific answers to in his previous proposal. The Ohio funeral home owner, Jeff Edwards, placed a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Health because they stopped issuing permits for alkaline hydrolysis. Various persons of importance have taken many steps to legalize the practice of alkaline hydrolysis. Currently, 8 states have legalized the practice of alkaline hydrolysis, not including California or Ohio. There are also many persons of importance taking action to ban the practice altogether. Many eco-activists are taking steps to ban the practice because of their fear of further ecological harm. Some believe the chemically treated remains will harm the ocean and the marine life dwelling within it. Michael Lee Madsen Sr. is currently trying to gain 1,000,000 people to sign his petition to stop the practice altogether. Currently, there are 19 states that are anticipating legislative decisions as to legality of the practice.
As for now, the practice of the possibly eco-friendly, potentially eco-harming method for human disposal is a topic for controversy and may remain so for the next 20,000 years.