Families deserve to have alkaline hydrolysis as a legal option in their state. Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process that uses water, alkalinity, and heat to reduce a body to its final mineral bone remains. The final remains are processed into a powdered ash, and returned to the family in an urn. Some states have had a tough time getting their consenting bills to their governor’s desk for a signature, despite multiple attempts. I think one of the fundamental problems here is that some authorities and industry professionals don’t agree on how to approve this option.
The Approval Process
Most states require a legislative change to permit this process for human disposition. Others may only require some rule amendments by the board of authority, which can be a faster process. Some may require a little bit of both.
There are essentially two approaches to permitting alkaline hydrolysis in funeral law. Ten states have addressed alkaline hydrolysis as a form of cremation; three have addressed it as a completely separate method.
This is a hot spot for some in the industry. The Cremation Society of North America (CANA) has addressed AH as cremation in their model language with a simple modification of the cremation definition, which states, “The mechanical and/or thermal or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments.” The definition for cremation container was also expanded to include materials that are readily combustible or consumable. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) went the other route, providing a five page set of recommendations on how to address alkaline hydrolysis as a separate disposition method. NFDA’s model guidelines state that AH should not be called cremation, asserting that this practice may be misleading.
It seems like there should be a clear answer for this dilemma within the definition of the word cremation. A few years ago, I consulted several professors of English Language and Literature on this topic at my alma mater Purdue University. I learned that some experts believed that the historical definition of the word cremation could arguably support alkaline hydrolysis. Now when I approach any professor in this field and mention that there are ten states that have addressed AH as cremation, they say, “there’s your answer.” According to experts, a word’s usage, not etymology, determines the meaning of a word, and cremation is sometimes used in a sense that includes alkaline hydrolysis. Furthermore, a word means whatever the law defines it as.
I have always taken the stance that this is a decision that belongs in the hands of the regulatory authorities for each individual state. The definitions and rules in funeral law already vary from state to state. Approving AH in law extends far beyond the question of, “do we believe AH is cremation?” The bill sponsors may have to consider the current verbiage of the law, the legislative process, time, money, jurisdiction, sponsorship, other group interests or oppositions, desired outcome, and the list goes on.
Both approaches for accommodating AH have been successful. As for whether it is misleading to call AH cremation – I personally do not believe it is. My understanding is that some industry professionals are worried about consumer transparency. There are measures that can be taken with both approval methods to ensure that individuals know exactly what they are selecting. My customers have found that no matter how familiar or unfamiliar with the process a family may be, they all ask a lot of questions. They all read the detailed brochure. These families all know exactly what they are selecting before they ever receive the authorization form to sign. The authorization form is an additional layer of transparency. It should include a very detailed description of the process, regardless of how the state permits the process by law.
The List of States
To my best knowledge, there are 13 approved states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont, and Wyoming. In Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan are approved. Medical schools are not regulated by funeral law, so there are some states like California and Texas that have systems operating at medical schools for their donated body programs, yet the process is not available to the general public through funeral homes and crematories.
I don’t always get a call when AH is being addressed by a state, so it is difficult for me to definitively know all of the states, and it’s not for lack of trying. Idaho has been approved since 2014, but I only recently came to understand how their rule adoption works. New Hampshire has been reported as approved on many lists, but a call this week to the funeral board revealed that this is not true. Rule language has been drafted, but at this time there are no plans to move forward with legislation until they have an interested party.
The three states that address AH as a separate method are Minnesota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Minnesota had a very simple approach – they passed a paragraph-length statue that alkaline hydrolysis is subject to all licensing and regulation that applies to cremation/crematories. Oregon and Wyoming added more detailed language, with bills in the 30 page range. Ohio has had multiple attempts to approve AH since 2012; the most recent bill of amended language was 140 pages. Attempts by California and North Carolina have gotten stuck for financial review. I know that in California, they believed that allowing this equipment would require creation of a new inspector job, which would cause an additional financial burden on the state. Existing crematory inspectors can be trained in one day, and given a modified inspection sheet.
The remainder of the approved states address AH as cremation, but there is a great deal of variation within this method. Some states made the definition of cremation less restrictive by simply removing limiting language like combustion and incineration (see CO, FL, ID, MD, and MO). Some modifications are similar but with more clarity, adding words like “dissolution” (KS, ME, and proposed PA HB815). More specific language can be used to give the funeral board more control over the regulation (see GA and failed 2013 NY S04321-A). And finally, another method is to define alkaline hydrolysis, and add alkaline hydrolysis to the definition of cremation (see IL, VT, or failed TN HB1125 and Indiana SB333). Perhaps this is the compromise between the two methods.
There are at least nine states that have the ideal language to allow alkaline hydrolysis without any modification. A simple acknowledgement or rule outside of legislation could probably allow those states to allow AH. This was the case with Missouri – the definition of cremation was accommodating, and there was nothing restricting alkaline hydrolysis. Therefore the board reviewed a draft rule providing additional clarification that it would be permissible in Missouri.
Where to Start
Funeral professionals: If you are potentially interested in offering alkaline hydrolysis in the future, you need to let the funeral board and association know. Don’t wait until you’re ready, because it will take time to get this passed.
Regulators: I recommend looking at existing examples and deciding what you do and do not like. I have organized copies of legislation and can help point you to a state that has similar existing law, or point you in the direction of state examples that fit what you envision for your state. If there are concerns, I recommend compiling a list and working through it instead of letting it become a barrier to forward progress. Some concerns do not need to be written in to the funeral law, because they are already covered by other laws. For example, the requirement for ASME certified pressure vessels for any systems that operate under pressure is absolutely redundant. Your state already has a law for this, just like state occupational health laws are not repeated in detail throughout other parts of funeral law. I expect there is a question somewhere that I have not been asked, but I’m confident there is a solution.
Funeral homes have been offering this option to the public for over 5 years, and those funeral directors have reported that greater than 80% of their families are choosing AH over flame cremation when given the choice. Most people who go this route believe it to be a more gentle option than fire. The technology has been in use for over 20 years by hundreds of our nation’s most respected institutions, including our own government’s facilities. I guess I am left to wonder, at what point are we not proactively serving our states’ residents?
Making AH legal won’t guarantee that an in-state provider will rush to install this equipment, but it will open the door for consumers to provide the demand and have the possibility of seeing a response. A lot of state authorities are waiting for local funeral homes or crematories to approach them with serious interest before they initiate any action. That is too late! The legislation takes time. I have been contacted by families where the nearest legal state is over 900 miles away. There isn’t a good way for me to help families like this, and that is a bad day for me. It would be a bad day for anyone on the receiving end of those phone calls. Some of these calls come from people who are trying to pre-plan their final wishes. I hope I am able to call them back during their lifetime to tell them that their state approved alkaline hydrolysis. FBA
Samantha Sieber is a biologist with over 9 years of experience working with alkaline hydrolysis and other sterilization technologies. She has obtained regulatory permits for over 75 AH systems for pet and human disposition across the US and Canada. She is Vice President of Research for her family’s Indiana-based company, Bio-Response Solutions. Sam can be reached at 317-386-3500, [email protected], or visit www.bioresponsefuneral.com.