Dissolving the dead

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Sullivan spent five years lobbying the EU to allow a process that would completely sterilise infected carcasses.

The company he worked for, WR2, had patented an alkaline hydrolysis tissue digester, and was already using it to destroy the remains of animals from research laboratories.

In the end, alkaline hydrolysis was not used to dissolve Europe’s BSE-infected cattle, though it was used in the US to dispose of elk and sheep infected with similar diseases.

The development that led to tissue digesters turning up in funeral parlours came a couple of years later, when Dean Fisher, director of anatomical donations at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, started exploring the idea of using alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of the clinic’s cadavers.

He and a colleague got the chance to inspect a machine installed at a hospital in Florida, and were impressed with what they saw.

“We were like, ‘Oh my God, look at that finished product!’” Fisher says, referring to the pure white bones that were left at the end of the process.

However, they felt that the top-loading machine, designed to process several bodies at once, was undignified.

“It closed like a clam and we didn’t like that,” Fisher recalls.

“We said, ‘Can you turn that cylinder in the other direction? Can you place a basket or tray in it with little holes that can move the fluid around during the course of the cycle and afterwards all the bone and all the prosthetics and everything are sitting in the tray?’ And that is what they designed for us.”

The new digester was an early prototype for the machine at Bradshaw’s in Stillwater, though it wasn’t quite so easy to use. Before each process the operator had to tighten 11 bolts on the door with a spanner, like a mechanic replacing a bus wheel.

But Sullivan saw the potential for the technology to be used commercially in funeral parlours.

After WR2 went bust in 2006 he formed a new company, Resomation Ltd, while his former CEO at WR2, Joe Wilson, formed another company, Bio-Response Solutions – and the two became the Pepsi and Coke of alkaline hydrolysis.

The last decade has been a challenging one for both men.

“It’s a conservative market,” says Sullivan. “When you come in with a new idea, you know, it kind of puts the cat among the pigeons and you’re not easily accepted.”

It was the same for the pioneers of cremation, in the late 19th Century.

In the UK, when the Cremation Society built a crematorium in Woking in 1879, the townspeople protested – leading the home secretary to ban the practice until Parliament approved the idea, and introduced legislation to govern it.

As it turned out, the advocates of cremation did not have to wait that long.

In 1884, a well-known Welsh eccentric and self-styled druid, William Price, attempted to cremate his infant son’s dead body on a hilltop in Llantrisant.

He was arrested, but at his trial he argued that no laws stated cremation was illegal – and the judge agreed.

Price was acquitted and Woking crematorium began operations the following year, without waiting for regulation.

Several more crematoria were built in the UK before the Cremation Act was passed in 1902. It then took decades for the practice to become completely accepted.

It was only in the late 1960s that cremations outnumbered burials, and today there are three cremations for every one burial.

In the US, the process has been much slower. Over the past few years cremation has gradually been reaching parity with burial, and may now have overtaken it.

The regulatory vacuum that once surrounded cremation in the UK is now repeated with regard to alkaline hydrolysis.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says Sullivan. “We’ve been waiting for them to pass a law to regulate it, but it’s not going to happen. So we’re going to install one and force them to pass primary legislation to allow us to be regulated – because we want to be regulated.”

Planning permission has been granted for a Resomation machine to be fitted at Rowley Regis Crematorium in Sandwell in the West Midlands, though the water authority has yet to issue a permit for the effluent to be drained into the sewer. Sullivan says he does not expect a problem.

The cost of such a machine is equivalent to, or slightly less than, the cost of filtration equipment that crematoria in the UK have fitted to capture mercury emissions.

But Harvey Thomas, chairman of the Cremation Society and chairman of the board that owns Woking Crematorium, says the business case is not sewn up.

If the people who might choose alkaline hydrolysis are the people who would otherwise have chosen cremation, there is no commercial benefit for the crematorium, he points out.

“Commercially, all you are doing is losing one procedure and switching it to another. Whereas, in order to be commercially profitable, you would have to have people who were previously going to be buried deciding to do Resomation.”

He also notes that it only takes an hour to incinerate a body in a cremator, while Sullivan’s machine, the fastest on the market, takes three or four times that long to digest a body. So the potential income per day is lower.

If North America has been slower than the UK to warm to cremation, it is well ahead with alkaline hydrolysis.

It has been approved in three Canadian provinces (accounting for two-thirds of the population) and 14 US states, with a further five states mulling legislation at the moment.

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