Doubts raised on use of new process in West Midlands
On 18 December 2017 the BBC reported ‘Water cremation’ plans on hold over environmental fears following an earlier refusal* by Severn Trent Water to grant a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council who wished to operate an alkaline hydrolysis plant (“resomation”) for the disposal of human remains. Readers will recall last week’s post on the Law Commission’s 13th Programme of Law Reform on the 14 projects that the it will look at over the next three years. One of these was “A Modern Framework for Disposing of the Dead” for which the Commission explains [emphasis added]:
“New methods of disposal such as Resomation (a process using alkaline hydrolysis to reduce the body to ash) and promession/cryomation (a process using liquid nitrogen to crystallise the body and vibration to disintegrate it into particles) which are used overseas are completely unregulated here.
The legislation governing more traditional methods of disposal – burial and cremation – is outdated, piecemeal and complex. And the law does not ensure that a person’s own wishes as to the disposal of their remains are carried out, leading to disputes where family members disagree.”
The term “water cremation” is clearly an oxymoron, and tends to be used by the media in preference to “alkaline hydrolysis“, the generic name for the process which in the past has been applied to the disposal of animals during outbreaks of foot and mouth disease; as “resomation” now is being promoted for the treatment of human remains. Resomation Ltd is a UK company involved in developing the process and supplying equipment, and Resomation® is its registered trade mark.
The exact details of the resomation process differ, but a typical example has been described as follows [emphasis added]:
“Superficially, the resomation process is incredibly similar to modern cremation. In fact, up until the body is committed and passes from view, a resomation service would be no different from that of a normal cremation service. This means that many current crematoria will be able to install a stainless steel resomation tank alongside their existing cremation technology, meaning that they could become dual function in the future.
However, once the body is committed an entirely different process begins. The resomation tank, known as a resomator, is in fact a special type of pressure chamber that allows a body to be immersed in a special solution of potash lye and water – a process also known as alkaline hydrolysis. Gas powered steam generators than build the pressure inside the tank until the temperature rises to the required level and a chemical reaction takes place that separates the body into two distinct substances, usually over a period of three to four hours.
These substances are an ash, consisting of calcium phosphate from the bones, and a bio-fluid that’s made up of salts, sugars, peptides and amino acids. While the fluid is drained off and disposed of, the ash can be collected and either kept in an urn or scattered, much like what happens currently following a cremation. This liquid is free of any genetic material“.
Whilst there are no legislative provisions restricting the treatment of human remains using new processes such as these, it is not correct to state that it is “completely unregulated here“, as suggested above. There is a substantial tranche of environmental legislation which imposes controls on how such processes may be operated in relation to discharges to any of the three environmental media – air, water and land. Any process, even burial, must meet environmental criteria. A recent post considered how the Environment Agency’s new position statements would impact on groundwater pollution from cemeteries, and crematoria have long been subjected to controls on emissions to the ambient atmosphere, particularly those of mercury. Consequently, unless the relevant criteria are met, a “licence to operate” will not be granted as in the case of Sandwell Council.
In Scotland, the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, asp 20, does not presently include resomation, but section 99 empowers the Scottish Ministers to extend by regulations “specified provisions of this Act or any other enactment apply, subject to any specified modifications, in relation to specified ways of disposing of human remains”, [where “specified” means specified in the regulations].
Status of actors involved
A casual reader could be forgiven for adopting an uncritical approach to the various statements made on resomation. Whilst the cynical might suggest “MRDA”, the positions of the various parties involved may be summarized as follows:
- Severn Trent Water: the competent authority empowered to issue trade effluent permits which identify the acceptable physical and chemical characteristic of effluent from commercial and other properties.
- Defra and the Ministry of Justice: Government departments providing an interpretation of the domestic and European legislation.
- Sandwell Council: the prospective operator of the resomation process, with equipment supplied by Resomation Ltd.
- Water UK: “membership organisation which represents and works with the major water and wastewater service providers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.
- Cremation Society off Great Britain: “a registered charity, not conducted for profit…established in 1874. Since the Society’s formation it has worked tirelessly to promote and establish the practice of cremation among all members of the community”.
Without data on the process, its energy requirements and the composition of the effluent, it is not possible to comment on its environmental credentials or on Severn Trent’s refusal to grant a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council. The source at Water UK quoted in the BBC report said that the organization is “not convinced” on the process and had “serious concerns about the public acceptability”. However, in 2008, the Cremation Society of Great Britain amended its Memorandum and Articles of Association to allow it to promote other methods of dealing with dead bodies, “in particular Resomation which the Society regards as a viable adjunct to cremation due to its number of environmental advantages”.
There is probably some work to be done to convince the public and some faith communities. Despite the introduction of the Cremation Act in 1902 and the association regulations, cremation was slow to gain acceptance in England and Wales, even less so in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Up to 1925, cremation was used for less than 0.50% of deaths in the UK, and it was 1968 before the number of cremations exceeded that of burials, assisted in part by the end of the Roman Catholic ban.
Faiths groups in the UK have, as yet, expressed no formal opinion on the use of these techniques; whilst it should make no difference to issues associated with the “permanence of Christian burial” since it is the same part of the remains that will be strewed/buried (i.e. the bones), the issue of respect for the intrinsic dignity of the human body may be an issue, (as it was for the Roman Catholic Church when alkaline hydrolysis was proposed in New York State in 2012). Nevertheless, in view of growing pressure on churchyards and other burial grounds, interest in resomation and the other techniques identified in the Law Commission’s 13th Programme of Law Reform is likely to continue.
* We note that whilst in December, a number of news outlets carried the story of the refusal of a trade effluent permit to Sandwell Council, this refusal was in fact made in March 2017. There has been to date no indication why this has become of renewed interest to the media.