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Alternative Cremation Method Back In State Legislature

Edwards Funeral Service
Owner of Edwards Funeral Service, Jeff Edwards owns an alkaline hydrolysis machine.

A state lawmaker wants Ohioans to have another choice if they want to be cremated after they die. It’s called alkaline hydrolysis. A Columbus funeral home owner used the process several years ago before state officials shut him down. The process has also gotten some criticism from at least one religious group.

Four years ago, funeral director Jeff Edwards of Edwards Funeral Service on Columbus’ south side cremated 19 bodies with alkaline hydrolysis.

Edwards bought what’s called a Resomator machine for about $150,000. It includes a round metal cage frame where the body is placed. Then it is filled with a mixture of water and lye and heated up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. High pressure within the cage prevents the liquid from boiling. Edwards says the body is effectively broken down into its chemical components, which takes about three to 12 hours depending on the temperature.

“If explained to the consumer fairly and respectfully, let them make the decision and the choice, they will choose this over fire-based cremation my guess 90 to 95% of the time,” says Edwards.

Edwards says the liquid cremains can be flushed down a sewer drain and the soft porous white bone that is leftover can be easily crushed into ash and returned to the deceased’s relatives to be buried, scattered or placed in an urn.

“The upfront investment in the equipment is less for a fire-based device than it would be for the alkaline hydraulic device. But the cost to perform an individual disposition be it a cremation or a hydrolysis is less because you’re using less energy, you’re not using natural gas to create the fire,” says Edwards.

Alkaline hydrolysis is currently only allowed for animals under state law.

Executive Director of the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, Vanessa Niecamp says lawmakers are considering a change to allow the procedure for humans.

“That alkaline hydrolysis machine would not have been inspected, or been licensed at the time, nor now. With new legislation those pieces would be put in place and we would be prepared to then inspect those machines and to license those facilities to operate them,” says Niecamp.

At the Ohio Funeral Directors Association, Melissa Sullivan says her group initially supported alkaline hydrolysis before complaints from a religious group prompted a change.

“The Catholic Conference had some issues maybe they were looking for additional information and were not comfortable with the position, so we removed alkaline hydrolysis from that bill to make sure that everything else would go through smoothly,” says Sullivan.

Vice President of Schoedinger Cremation and Funeral Services, Kevin Schoedinger says his company remains neutral.

“We believe that the customer will really dictate as to whether or not this is something that appeals to them. And if this is something that appeals to them we would be glad to serve those families,” says Schoedinger.

State Representative Wes Retherford is sponsoring a bill to get Ohio to include the water and lye based cremation as one of the methods of human disposal. The state agriculture department already uses alkaline hydrolysis for dead animals.

“I just think it’s another alternative. I mean in the end it’s about serving the families and getting them what they need and what they deserve,” says Retherford.

Retherford works as an assistant mortician in southwest Ohio.

“There have been no studies that show that this is more expensive or it’s more harmful or less harmful or anything like that. Once again it’s just another alternative to traditional cremation and burial,” says Retherford.

The bill in the statehouse is in committee. Currently, seven states allow alkaline hydrolysis for disposal of human bodies.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.