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Liquid Cremation Process May Soon Be Legal In N.H. Again

A new form of cremation that proponents claim is more environmentally friendly may soon be legal in New Hampshire. It goes by many names including Resomation, Aquamation, bio cremation, and non-flame cremation. The scientific term is alkaline hydrolysis and it’s a process that uses a lye-like solution and hot water to liquefy human remains. But the jury is still out on whether the local funeral industry will adopt it.

Jojo Olyphant of Maine Coast Crematory is giving me a demonstration. He shows me a nine-foot stainless steel cylinder.

 “So say we have a 120lb person. You just hit enter. Process is ready. And you hit start. You hear the water…

“When the process is complete, the same way that you load the person, you’re just gonna unload and at the bottom of the vessel you’re gonna have the remains. So right there, they’re gonna be the bones. You just scoop those out…

RL: Will everything else have already been drained?

JO: Right. That’s all your’re gonna get out of the remains.

RL: Where does that go?

JO: Right down to the sewer.

The bones are dried, ground up and the powder cremains are given to the family. But that last part, where the liquid mix of amino acids, peptides, soap and water is flushed to the sewers has proven to be a flash point in the debate.

“We didn’t throw mama from the train. We flushed granny down the drain…”

That’s Republican Representative Don LeBrun of Nashua speaking on the house floor last month.

“Madame Speaker, I truly thank you for your indulgence and patience in listening to this but I know of no other way to express this vulgar, heinous, barbaric act of disposing of a dear loved one.”

But LeBrun was on the losing side of this debate. The bill cleared the house by a wide margin. Its lead sponsor, Republican Representative Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester says bio cremation made sense to him the first time he heard of it. But his argument to fellow law makers was that this should be up to the individual.

“All I’m gonna talk about is choice. If you don’t wanna do this and it’s passed, nobody will force you to do it. It’s for you to decide what is dignified for your body after you leave us.”

And those in the alkaline hydrolysis business are confident that there will be plenty of people making that choice.

“… alkaline hydrolysis will prevail because it is more environmentally responsible.”

Joe Wilson is the CEO of Bio-Response Solutions in Indiana. He installed the vessel in Maine, the only alkaline hydrolysis unit in New England.

Wilson argues that the process produces as little as one tenth the carbon foot print of conventional cremation. And that the sterile discharge is actually healthy for some wastewater treatment plants and can even be an effective fertilizer.

“I just had my parents cremated last week, both of them. And I would’ve loved to had ‘em done in alkaline hydrolysis except that in Indiana, it’s not legal yet.”

Presently, the process is legal in just nine states.

Seven years ago New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to legalize alkaline hydrolysis but it was repealed before any facility ever opened. At the time, only one funeral director was pushing for it. He has since left the state.

Peter Morin is the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Funeral Directors Association.

“Basically, we’re not in favor or against the process. Our interest is that it be properly regulated.”

But even with a regulatory framework in place, most New Hampshire funeral directors doubt they will offer alkaline hydrolysis any time soon.

“There’s no demand for it. I mean, in effect, we would be creating a demand where there is none.

Buddy Phaneuf is the President of the Cremation Society in New Hampshire and Phaneuf Funeral Homes, one of the largest cremation businesses in New England.

He says it’s too expensive, he’s skeptical of the environmental claims. And …

“Unfortunately New Hampshire just does not have the population base, with under 10,000 deaths a year and over 90 funeral homes in the market. So I don’t see it gaining traction in a small state like New Hampshire.”

The bill to legalize alkaline hydrolysis will need traction in the state senate which will take it up later this Spring.

Meanwhile, Jojo Olyphant at Maine Coast Crematory says that, in the year since they installed their bio cremator it’s been used by people from New Hampshire and from as far away as Pennsylvania. 

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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