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Aquamation – a Green Alternative to Flame-Based Cremation

In recent years, people in general have become more aware of the fact that municipal cemeteries have been running out of burial space in many of the major metropolitan areas. At the same time, people have become more conscious of the negative environmental impact of the burning of fossil fuels. With this in mind, the notion of green funerals has started to gain interest and funeral service providers have also started looking at the options available, not just to mitigate the space problem but also to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the alternative options that has become available in South Africa is aquamation, a planet-friendly alternative to traditional flame-based cremation.

What is aquamation?

Alkaline hydrolysis, known as aquamation, but also referred to as flameless cremation, water cremation, and bio-cremation, gently mimics the natural organic process that the body undergoes when it is finally laid to rest in the earth. It involves placing the body in a stainless-steel vessel and then using heat, pressure, and water with a high alkaline level (a combination of sodium and potassium hydroxide) to reduce the body to its basic elements. The end result comprises a benign sterile liquid (containing no trace of DNA and RNA), which is disposed of through the municipal wastewater system, with the remaining bone minerals processed into a fine powder.

The Forefront of Innovation

Alkaline hydrolysis dates back to 1888 when it was developed and patented in the United States by Amos Herbert Hanson. Amos was a farmer who developed the process to make fertiliser and gelatine from animal carcasses. It was officially put in use by the Albany Medical College in America in 1993 for the disposal of animal remains. The first machine for the handling of a human body was used in 2006.

AVBOB has been looking into new, innovative alternatives to conventional burials and flame-based cremation for quite some time and started doing intense research into aquamation over the last six years. This included visits to facilities in the United States, consultations with stakeholders, and strategic planning. The mutual assurance society introduced aquamation to South Africa in November 2019.

Diversity, Religious Practices, and Social Norms Considered

With the introduction of new technologies and processes, especially when it involves dealing with the remains of our loved ones, it is important to consider the rich diversity of cultures, religious practices, and social norms of society. The provision of a dignified send-off for loved ones is something that has been part of AVBOB Mutual Assurance Society’s service offering since we started out in the funeral business over 100 years ago – and was central in our thinking when we introduced the new innovation to South Africa.

What are the benefits of aquamation?
  • It is a gentle process that uses water rather than flame.
  • It is a natural biomimicry process with no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases or mercury into the environment.
  • It offers an energy saving of over 90% compared to flame-based cremation.
  • Up to 20%-30% more ash remains compared to traditional cremation.
  • It involves a very limited burning of fossil fuels.
  • It uses very little water.

AVBOB is the only funeral service provider in South Africa that offers aquamation. Currently, the service is only available at our funeral parlour in Maitland, Cape Town.

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