What is aquamation? Know all about the ‘green alternative’ to cremation chosen by South Africa’s Desmond Tutu

What is aquamation? Know all about the 'green alternative' to cremation chosen by South Africa's Desmond Tutu

The Nobel peace laureate and anti-apartheid hero chose the eco-friendly cremation, which uses water instead of flames to process the remains

What is aquamation? Know all about the 'green alternative' to cremation chosen by South Africa's Desmond Tutu

A mourner brings flowers to St George’s Cathedral, where a Wall of Remembrance for South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been set up after the news of his death, in Cape Town. AFP

The body of Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was reduced to dust by aquamation, a new cremation method using water that funerary parlours are touting as environmentally friendly.

Family members gathered to say their goodbyes to anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu at a private service at St George’s Cathedral on Sunday, where his ashes were interred in Cape Town and laid to rest.

So, what is aquamation and why is it called the ‘green alternative’ to cremation?

Aquamation explained

Aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis, consists of cremation by water rather than fire.

As per the process, the deceased’s body is immersed for three to four hours in a mixture of water and a strong alkali like potassium hydroxide in a pressurised metal cylinder and heated to around 150 degrees Celsius. Through the process, the entire body is liquified, except for the bones. The bones are dried in an oven and then reduced to dust.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), an international non-profit organisation, alkaline hydrolysis is sometimes referred to as flameless cremation.

What is aquamation Know all about the green alternative to cremation chosen by South Africas Desmond Tutu

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki (front right), and other mourners pay their last respects for Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during his funeral at the St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. AP

United States-based researcher Philip Olson has been quoted as saying that the method was developed in the early 1990s as a way to discard the bodies of animals used in experiments. According to Olson’s 2014 paper, the US medical schools then adapted the process in the 2000s to dispose of donated human cadavers.

The introduction of aquamation to South Africa was introduced in 2019, reported Business Insider SA.

Benefits of aquamation

Resomation, a British manufacturer of machinery used in water cremation, estimates that substituting aquamation for fire-based cremation cuts a funeral’s greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent. Bio-Response Solutions, an Indiana-based manufacturer, estimates that its technology cuts energy use by 90 percent compared with cremation by flame.

Also, the idea is more welcoming on an emotional level.

The idea that their loved one will burn in a fire seems violent. Choosing this method is like putting their loved one in a hot bath.

Is aquamation legal everywhere?

Aquamation isn’t a common household term and isn’t even legalised everywhere. As of date, South Africa has no legislation specifically covering aquamation.

About 20 states in the United States have legalised the process, most over the past decade.

Significant for Desmond Tutu

It is learnt that Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away on 26 December, had requested that his funeral not be ostentatious and that his body not be cremated by flame. Instead, Tutu reportedly requested aquamation.

It is not surprising as the anti-apartheid hero was a huge champion of the environment and spoke frequently of the perils of climate change, which he once called among the “greatest moral challenges of our time”.

He advocated for boycotts of oil and fossil fuel-producing firms and called for greater investment in clean energy and low-carbon products. He also sought to amplify the voices of young climate activists.

He gave many speeches and wrote many articles about the need to act to tackle the climate crisis.

In 2007, he wrote a piece titled “This Fatal Complacency” for the Guardian in which he addressed the worrying impact that climate change was having in the global south and on poor communities.

With inputs from agencies

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