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Missouri bishops oppose legal recognition of alkaline hydrolysis

Method of disposal is a concern, bishops note in a statement

Alkaline hydrolysis — also known as aqua cremation or flameless cremation — breaks down a deceased body into liquid and solid components.

The bishops of Missouri released a statement Aug. 10 opposing the legal recognition and use of alkaline hydrolysis as “a means of disposing human remains since it fails to fully respect the dignity that is owed to the deceased.”

Missouri is one of more than a dozen states in which alkaline hydrolysis is legal. The chemical process uses a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide that reduces a body to components of a sterile liquid and bone. The liquid is typically disposed of through the sewer system, while the bones are pulverized into ash and returned to the family.

“This is very different from (traditional) cremation, where the entire remains from the cremation process may be respectfully interred in the earth or columbarium,” the bishops noted in their statement.

While the process of alkaline hydrolysis itself may not be “intrinsically wrong,” they wrote, “we believe it fails to show due reverence and respect for the human remains of the deceased by subjecting the dissolved human remains to being flushed into the sewer system.”

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, in a July 26 memo to to clergy, parish liturgical ministers and funeral directors, noted that “the Archdiocese of St. Louis advises Catholics to avoid alkaline hydrolysis until another suitable means of disposing of the liquid remnant can be established.”

Alkaline hydrolysis technology was developed in the late 19th century for handling animal remains. In recent years it has been introduced as an alternative, “eco-friendly” method of disposing of human remains. In 2005, an alkaline hydrolysis system was built for the Mayo Clinic’s anatomical bequest program. A funeral service in Columbus, Ohio, was the first in the United States to offer aqua cremation as a funeral service in 2011.

“We believe (alkaline hydrolysis) fails to show due reverence and respect for the human remains of the deceased by subjecting the dissolved human remains to being flushed into the sewer system.”

Statement from Missouri bishops
The alkaline hydrolysis accelerates the natural breakdown of the body, according to information from Bio-Response Solutions, which manufactures units for funeral disposition. A combination of water flow, temperature, alkalinity is used to accelerate the natural course decomposition. At the end of the process, the body is dissolved in the water. Similar to traditional cremation, the only solid remains are the mineral ash of the bones and prosthetics, if applicable.

Father Peter Fonseca, associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Florissant, who has a master’s degree in biomedical ethics and a certification in health care ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, recently wrote a paper about concerns with alkaline hydrolysis. The paper is expected to be published in the journal “Homiletic & Pastoral Review” by the end of the year.

“This dignity and respect demand the liquid remnant must not be disposed of in the same way as human waste is disposed of,” Father Fonseca wrote. Alkaline hydrolysis “cannot be viewed as a prudent manner of disposing of a human body and thus should not be accepted by Catholics until another suitable means of disposing of the liquid remnant can be established.”

Father Fonseca noted that even though the method is being touted by supporters as eco-friendly, “we don’t get to violate the dignity of the human person.”

He also stressed that there is a difference between disposal of the liquid remains of a human being and other funerary practices involving the human body, such as embalming, in which the bodily fluids are removed. “In alkaline hydrolysis, you have the entire body being degraded into liquid form,” he said. “My argument is that there is an essential difference between what was your body and bodily fluids.

“By analogy, if somebody were tragically murdered and there was blood everywhere, I don’t think we would have a problem with somebody taking a hose and hosing that down into the drain,” Father Fonseca said. “But if you came across a body, we would be very paused. It’s one thing to take a part of the body, it’s another thing to take what was the entire body and dispose of it.”

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