Dissolve the Dead? Controversy Swirls around Liquid Cremation

Eight times a year a funeral director sets off by boat from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base carrying about two dozen plastic bags filled with unusual human remains. The powder he pours overboard is from corpses that have been “cremated”—not by fire, but by liquid.

That’s how the University of California, Los Angeles, disposes of bodies donated to science: by dissolving the flesh off their bones. The bones are then ground to dust and scattered into the sea two miles offshore, forming white rings that slowly float away into the Pacific Ocean.

U.C.L.A. is the only place in California that liquefies the dead. But after five years and hundreds of bodies processed, Dean Fisher, director of the university’s Donated Body Program, hopes to change that. He has been working with state legislators on a bill allowing funeral homes to use this process, called alkaline hydrolysis. The state Senate has until September 15 to consider the legislation, which has already sailed through California’s lower house with a vote of 71 to 3. “The science says this technology is safe and has environmental benefits,” Fisher says. If California approves the new death rite, it would join a club that includes parts of Canada and several U.S. states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Wyoming.

But this means of final disposition crosses uncomfortable lines for some.

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