In Brief

California Bill: What Is Water Cremation?

dead body
(Image credit: UV70/Shutterstock)

People in California no longer need to decide between being buried or cremated when they die. On Oct. 15, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow for new option called "water cremation."

Water cremation, or "alkaline hydrolysis," is said to be a more eco-friendly option for handling end-of-life remains. Because nothing is burned during the procedure, no toxic gases or air pollutants are produced, according to the Mayo Clinic, which uses the procedure in their anatomy department in Rochester, Minnesota.

To "water cremate" remains, the body is placed in a pressurized steel chamber filled with an alkaline solution that's 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota. The chamber is then heated to around 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius), significantly lower than the 1,600 to 1,800 degrees F (871 to 982 degrees C) needed to cremate a body in fire, the Funeral Consumers Alliance says.

Though the process might seem grotesque, it's similar to the natural processes that occur in the body after death, the Mayo Clinic says. Water cremation converts the body's tissues and cells into a watery solution of molecules — in other words, it dissolves the body — leaving behind just the bones. The combination of the alkaline solution, pressure and heat speeds up what could take more than two decades to occur naturally after a body is buried, the Funeral Consumers Alliance says.

After the body has been dissolved, the remaining bones are crushed into ash and returned to the family, much like the remains are returned after cremation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Matt Baskerville, an Illinois funeral director, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the consistency of these ashes is akin to that of ivory-colored powdered sugar, as opposed to the dense and coarse texture of ashes recovered after a flame cremation.

The California bill will go into effect in 2020. Currently, 14 other states have legalized water cremation, according to the New York Post.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.