Flameless cremation: Watered-down way of deconstructing the dead

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It’s a morbid question, but it’s one we must all face sooner or later: after you die: What do you want done with your remains?

Like a lot of Americans, Melanie and Reggie Heath of Pinellas Park decided years ago to be cremated. But Melanie never really liked the thought of her earthly remains being consumed by fire.

“When I think of flames, all sorts of awful images come to mind,” says Heath. “From a bad place to go in the after-life, to funeral pyres, to war. You just picture all of these violent images.”

After Reggie died in May at the age of 89, Melanie went to Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg to plan his funeral and carry out his wish for cremation. And that’s when owner John McQueen presented her with an unexpected choice.

“He said, ‘would you prefer the flame cremation or the flameless cremation?’ And I just looked really puzzled and said, ‘What?” said Heath.

Anderson-McQueen is one of only two funeral homes in the United States that offers a process called bio-cremation. It’s the product of a Scottish inventor who wanted a more environmentally friendly way to dispose of the dead. The emissions from flame cremation can actually put mercury in the air; that happens when the mercury amalgam in people’s dental work is vaporized. The inventor, Sandy Sullivan, designed a stainless steel chamber that uses a solution of water and potassium hydroxide to dissolve human tissue, leaving behind only bone.

“It works through a process called alkaline hydrolysis,” explained McQueen. “It’s actually the same natural process that takes place when a body is buried in the ground – only in this machine, the process takes about three hours versus 15 or 20 years.”

McQueen showed FOX 13 how the machine, called The Resomator, works. The body is first placed in the airtight, watertight chamber through a door that seals much like a hatch on a submarine. The machine then weighs the body and calculates how much water and potassium hydroxide are needed for the process.

It adds the solution and then heats the solution to 350 degrees. After about three hours, all of the hair and tissue have rapidly decomposed. The watery solution left behind is then flushed out of the chamber and goes into a special holding tank.

Clean bones are left behind in the machine. They are rinsed with cool water. The bones are next taken to a different machine that processes them into a sandy, white powder – much like the “ashes” or remains that result from flame cremation except not gray in color.

McQueen says bio-cremation actually produces about 25-percent more remains than flame cremation.

“The fire process is not as gentle, so it destroys more of the bone,” says McQueen. “We actually had to buy bigger urns to hold the extra remains we get through bio-cremation.”

Heath says she liked the idea of water being used to deconstruct the body, rather than fire.

“I thought, hmm, that’s a lot nicer. Water makes me think of places like the beach, the lake, the spa,” said Heath.

Anderson-McQueen was the first funeral home in the world to offer bio-cremation four years ago. McQueen says it is gaining in popularity, now making up about 8-percent of their total cremations. It costs $145 more than flame cremation. Heath says it’s a price she’s willing to pay knowing the process is more gentle and easier on the environment. Bio-cremation uses one-seventh the energy of flame cremation and produces no emissions.

For more information on bio-cremation, visit http://www.andersonmcqueen.com/what-we-do/flameless-cremation