Family Health Humor Life and Death Medicine

Watching Grandma Circle the Drain

April 20, 2017

If you’re fed up with the high prices of traditional funerals and are looking for a better alternative to disposing of your loved ones by toasting them to ashes, how about washing them down the drain?

The Pressure Cooker

Sixteen years ago, scientists came up with a unique way to dispose of animal carcasses used in medical research – “Alkaline Hydrolysis.” The process uses a combination of a highly alkaline product (usually lye), 300° F temperatures and 60 lbs. per square inch pressure in a specially designed stainless steel container, much like a large pressure cooker. After a moderate amount of “cooking,” the carcass is reduced to a coffee-colored syrup – about the consistency of motor oil. The liquid is sterile and is generally safe enough to be poured down the drain. For those who would like to hold onto something to remember their loved ones, bone residue can be captured, dried and placed in an urn, similar to cremation.

The process is actually nothing new. Hollywood has used similar enactments for years in gangster movies by eliminating snitches in their bathtubs. Alkaline hydrolysis is now gaining favor because of its environmental benefits. Unlike cremation, there are no dangerous emissions like carbon dioxide or the ill-effects of disposing of mercury and silver dental fillings.

The New Alternative to Burial

With all of its perceived benefits, selling alkaline hydrolysis has been a tough sell. The first challenge is getting the public to accept the process. While human burial and cremation have become mainstream methods for disposing of human bodies, there’s something unsettling about watching your grandma circle the drain at the close of her life. Minnesota and New Hampshire have legalized the process, but only one funeral director has stepped up to offer the service.

Many detractors of the service are uncomfortable with the idea. “We believe this process, which enables a portion of human remains to be flushed down a drain, to be undignified,” says Patrick McGee who is a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester. Others, like New Hampshire State Representative Barbara French agree that it might time for a change. The 81-year-old lawmaker said, “I’m getting near that age and thought about cremation but this is equally as good and less of an environmental problem. It doesn’t bother me any more than being burned up.”

A number of detractors are concerned with the process of disposing of human waste. George Carlson, an Industrial Waste Manager with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services says, “Things the public might find more troubling routinely flow into sewage treatment plants in the U.S. all the time. That includes blood and spillover embalming fluid from funeral homes.”

The Big Kahuna of Hydrolysis

The chief proponent of the process is Brad Cain, who is President of BioSafe Engineering. The company manufactures the required steel containers and estimates that as many as 50 facilities (including veterinary schools, universities, pharmaceutical companies and the United States government) use his equipment to dispose of animal carcasses and other types of medical wastes. Cain would like to offer the service to consumers as an alternative to cremation. The cost of the service would run about the same.

At the current time, there are only two facilities in the country that use the process – the University of Florida in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Both are research facilities and neither of them offers the service to the public. Chad Corbin, a Manchester funeral director, was issued a permit to operate a hydrolysis tank last year but the process became mired in delays and red tape with obtaining other permits – now he has to begin the approval process all over again. “I don’t know how long it will take,” he said recently, “but eventually it will happen.”

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