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St. Petersburg funeral home wants to be first to offer chemical cremation

ST. PETERSBURG — A bill to legalize the chemical process in New York was called "Hannibal Lecter's bill." Just before the same bill went down in defeat in New Hampshire, a lawmaker complained that he didn't want his loved ones to go "down the drain."

It's called alkaline hydrolysis, and it's one of a wave of green funeral options gaining popularity across the nation. Proponents say it's better for the environment and gentler on the deceased.

It just takes some getting used to, is all. That's because it's basically melting your loved ones away.

The process has been used in the medical and research fields for more than a decade. Now it might be coming to St. Petersburg.

Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home could be the first in the nation to allow the public to use it for their loved ones. Company president Bill McQueen has asked the city for permission to use the technology.

"We feel that in every facet of our life, people are becoming much more environmentally conscious," McQueen said. "Why not in regards to life transition issues as well?"

But first the city has to make sure the process is technically feasible: What exactly is being flushed into St. Petersburg's sewers, and can the city's wastewater treatment system handle it?

Proponents, though, may have more visceral reactions to overcome, like, where will my loved one end up?

• • •

Despite some legislative defeats, the process is actually gaining acceptance nationwide. It's legal in Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and Florida. The University of Florida College of Medicine was the first to use the process to dispose of remains in 1998. It will be legal in Kansas and Maryland in 2011 and 14 other states are considering it.

Matthews Cremation president Steve Schaal, whose Apopka company will equip Anderson-McQueen, said they've studied the consumer reaction: "Less than 5 percent had an 'ick' factor."

His company is promoting the "bio-cremation" process (other companies have different names) through equipment made by the Scottish firm Resomation Ltd. — also the name of its machine.

Here's how it works: The body is placed in a pressurized drum that can hold up to 400 gallons of water (the amount of water depends on the size of the deceased) and the chemical potassium hydroxide, also known as potash lye. It's used in everything from antifreeze to soap to Oil of Olay.

The mix is 96 percent water, 4 percent chemical. It's heated to 350 degrees and constantly recirculated through the drum for two to four hours, like a wash cycle that goes on for hours.

The result: Soft tissue is dissolved into a soapy, murky but sterile liquid that has no human remains or DNA, Schaal said.

The only thing that's left is bone and metal — pacemakers and replacement joints, for example. The bones are pulverized into a white powder and given to the family in an urn — just like regular cremation. It's natural decomposition on fast-forward.

"We're simulating what would happen if a body was placed in the ground," Schaal said. "The difference is that it takes two hours, whereas decomposition could take up to 20 years."

The environmental advantages over fire-based cremation are obvious: no greenhouse gases released, no use of fossil fuels (usually natural gas); no need to surgically remove radioactive pacemakers beforehand; no need to scrub the emissions of mercury fillings or other pollutants; even the ash is less coarse.

The National Association of Funeral Directors said that 56 percent of Florida's deceased were cremated in 2009. But the number is growing, and so is the environmental impact. Each application of "bio-cremation," though, is like taking a handful of showers.

The alkaline hydrolysis process is expected to cost the same as fire-based cremation — about $2,800 at Anderson-McQueen — but the environmental cost and carbon footprint is much less.

Before anyone judges chemical cremation, Wisconsin funeral home operator and NAFD spokesman James Olson said, they should ask themselves this: What do they think crematory furnaces do to their loved ones?

"What happens is that we as a society have taken cremation and turned that into just a process," he said. "You have your loved ones cremated and placed in an urn.

"But if you think about the cremation process, the body is exposed to 1,500 degrees. The bodies are burned down, vaporized to nothing. If that doesn't get a visceral reaction from people, then I don't understand why the gentle dissolving of the body does."

• • •

St. Petersburg's director of water resources George Cassady said city engineers need to determine what's being washed down the drain. They're concerned, for example, with the pH levels and acidity of what will end up in the sewer system.

But he also pointed out that the city's four treatment plants — which handle up to 34 million gallons daily — already deal with pesticides, heavy metals, blood and medical waste and, of course, human waste. Most of that water is treated and reused, while some is pumped 1,000 feet down into the aquifer.

None of that wastewater ends up in the drinking water, of course. St. Petersburg drinks water from well fields in Pasco and Hillsborough counties and the desalination plant in Tampa.

What about religious objections? A 2008 article in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly approved of the process as a "moral means of final bodily disposition."

The McQueen siblings — Bill, 49, John, 46, and Maggie, 52 — own and operate the company their dad William F. McQueen started with John S. Anderson in 1952. They just want to give their customers another option, Bill McQueen said.

If anyone feels uneasy about it, well, what funeral is easy?

"I think there's a lot of things that we've done in our profession that people didn't want to know what we do," he said, "and still don't want to know what we do."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated Press. Reach Jamal Thalji at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg funeral home wants to be first to offer chemical cremation 10/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 25, 2010 11:13pm]
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