What Is Water Cremation And Why It May Soon Be Legal In One State

Water cremation is the process of breaking down a deceased person's body by using a combination of water, alkaline chemicals, and heat, and Texas may be the next state to legalize it.

By Kari Apted | Updated

water cremation

It’s not something most of us want to talk about, but all of us must decide what will happen to our bodies after we die. Until recently, the funeral industry offered two basic options: burial or flame-based cremation. Now, water cremation is an option in several states, but others, including Texas, are hesitant to embrace the concept.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), cremation has surpassed burial as the most common type of post-mortem body disposition. In 2006, only around 34 percent of bodies were cremated after death. In 2021, 57.5 percent of the people who died in the United States were cremated.

CANA executive director Barbara Kemmis says that water cremation represents less than a tenth of one percent of the nearly two million cremations happening in the U.S. each year. In 2021, that was fewer than 2,000 dispositions. However, interest in the procedure is growing at an even faster pace than it originally took Americans to accept the idea of flame-based cremation over burial.

“It took a hundred years from the first [flame] cremation in 1876 for the cremation rate to hit 5 percent in the United States in 1972 and then less than 50 years to hit 50 percent cremation [in 2016],” Kemmis told Smithsonian Magazine. “I don’t know what portion of that cremation market alkaline hydrolysis will have, but it’s certainly growing faster than flame cremation did in popularity.”

Water cremation can be referred to by multiple names, including alkaline hydrolysis, AH, flameless cremation, green cremation, chemical cremation, liquid cremation, or aquamation. There are also two trademarked names for the procedure, Biocremation and Resomation. States that have approved the process may also call it dissolution.

Water cremation basically speeds up the decomposition process that happens with burial. Water, alkaline chemicals, heat, and sometimes pressure and agitation are applied inside a sealed chamber. The process breaks the bonds between chemicals in the body and converts them into a sterile effluent and bone fragments, which are ground up and given back to the family as in regular cremation.  

The effluent contains salts, sugars, amino acids, and peptides and is considered a welcome addition to water systems because it is significantly cleaner than ordinary wastewater. Water cremation is far more environmentally friendly than fire-based cremation, as it uses significantly less fuel. It has a lower carbon footprint than either traditional cremation or burial.

According to CANA’s map of water cremation status, there are active practitioners in 15 states and the procedure is legal in another nine. Some are speculating that Texas will be the next state to legalize this more gentle form of cremation. State Senator Nathan Johnson has filed SB105 to bring the process to the Lone Star state.

Sen. Johnson is not the first legislator to draft a Texas bill to make water cremation legal. Previous attempts were not passed, and some say it’s largely because of opposition from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the group, says they will continue to oppose the bills because “alkaline hydrolysis fails to treat the body with dignity and respect.”

Still, Sen. Johnson is hopeful that this will be the session that passes the bill, stating that it often takes three or four sessions before an introduced bill becomes law. “As more momentum builds behind [the bill], those kinds of obstructions get moved out of the way. Why any group of people should be able to have such influence, not only over life but over death, should be able to affect the desire of how I want my body to be disposed of is beyond me,” Johnson said.

Eric Neuhaus offers flame-based and water cremation at his Green Cremation Texas business, but because of state law, he must fly bodies out of state if they request the flameless cremation option. He believes those who feel the process is disrespectful to the human body can simply choose another method of disposition and he is embarrassed that Texas is behind other states in embracing the option. “I think that it is important for every single Texan – no matter race, religion or creed – to be able to have the option to choose this,” he said.