INDY Week: How did you get into the business of aquamation?
Hunter Beattie: In my twenties I was doing a lot of renewable energy work … then kind of fell off the path from that. I was trying to come back to service work … and just didn’t know how that could happen. Then I read about Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, choosing aquamation in January of 2022. I was completely inspired by his decision [and] also the compelling case all of these articles made that modern funeral practices are unsustainable and bad for the environment.
How do current funeral practices harm the environment?
Our cemeteries are filling up. We can’t keep preserving dead bodies, putting them in nonbiodegradable caskets in the middle of town, taking up public space—space that could otherwise be open for wildlife or used for affordable housing.
We have two amazing options in front of us. One is green burial at conservation cemeteries. The other is aquamation, which, of course, is a better option than [traditional] cremation, because we’re not combusting the body and releasing greenhouse gases and carcinogenic gases into the atmosphere.
What exactly is aquamation?
Both flame cremation and water cremation accomplish the same goal. They remove the soft tissue so bone remains in the form of calcium phosphate. Bone dust can be returned to the family in an urn.
Flame cremation uses 1,700-degree temperatures to combust the soft tissue. That’s how nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and carcinogenic gases are released. As an alternative, aquamation circulates an alkaline solution around the body [that’s] 95 percent water, 5 percent potassium hydroxide. The process is called alkaline hydrolysis.
Essentially, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are broken down into sugars, salts, amino acids, and peptides, the building blocks of the soft tissue of our body. That is then filtered and treated at a wastewater treatment facility, again as an alternative to combusting it and it going up into the air. Then the bone remains are returned to the family.
What response do people have to the idea of aquamation?
The initial reaction is a little bit of squeamishness, because they think, “Oh my gosh, you’re liquefying a body.” But I think that we all have this natural tendency to scrutinize something that’s new and different …. Once I explain the process to them, most people are sold on it. They think that it’s a gentler process on the body. We return more bone remains, we don’t lose any up through the chimney. So it is a more delicate process. And then, of course, there are the environmental benefits.
What are the environmental benefits of aquamation?
By not combusting the body, we’re not releasing all of these toxic gases and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The process only uses about one-tenth of the energy as flame cremation.
Flame cremation, of course, uses natural gas, a fossil fuel. We are using electricity, most of which is generated from a coal-fired power plant right now. However, once we have our solar array over our parking lot, we will be completely carbon-neutral. We’ll be able to offset the electricity usage from all of our aquamation. That is the goal for 2024.
Aquamation is part of the larger green burial movement, even though it doesn’t involve burial. We’re rethinking end-of-life care …. In terms of conservation cemeteries and aquamation, North Carolina is up there with California in terms of having all of these incredible options.
How do you feel about being in the funeral business?
If you had asked me a year and a half ago what I wanted to do with my life … I can’t imagine anything that would have been lower on the list than death care. Working with dead bodies, it’s a difficult process and it’s gross.
But the front-of-house operation, interacting with the community … this is such a profoundly meaningful experience, to work with people in end-of-life care, to overlap with someone when they’re preparing for their imminent death or they’re grieving the loss of a loved one.
We just spoke at Duke Divinity School. We’re hosting monthly death cafés at the Urn Gallery. We live in a death-denying society, so this is an opportunity for people to be very open and talk about their fears, concerns—just share information with other people about end-of-life matters.
Why is it important to talk about death?
Things can happen at a moment’s notice, and it’s important for people to be prepared and to start talking about these issues now. I mean, we all share this experience. We will lose a loved one. We will ultimately die, and at some point, we have to consider end-of-life options.
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