Cremations go 'green' by forgoing the flames

  • Article by: ASHA ANCHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2012 - 9:24 PM

A new trend in cremations uses a chemical process that's said to be easier on the environment.

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Jason Bradshaw, vice-president and COO of Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services, stands by the Resomator, a "green cremation" machine, prior to its first use in the Green Cremation Chapel at the Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater July 11, 2012. Instead of fire-based cremation, the machine uses a water process. Bradshaw is seen behind a glass wall. This is the view that loved ones would have if they chose to spend time with the deceased prior to a green cremation.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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Stephen Page isn't "green enough" to trade in his car for a bike, but he does like efficiency. So when he found out about a new cremation option that can reduce his body to ashes without burning and releasing toxins, he signed up right away.

"I [don't] want to be stuck in a cemetery somewhere with [my] body taking up space for hundreds of years," said the St. Paul retiree.

When his time comes, Page will have a "green cremation" at Bradshaw's Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater. The process trades traditional "flame-based" cremation for a chemical process that mimics nature, but works faster.

"It's better on the environment, and even though I'm dead it'll probably be better on me, too," Page said.

Friday, Bradshaw's Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater was licensed to offer "green cremations," becoming the first funeral home in Minnesota to offer this alternative, and only the second in the nation.

In 2011, the number of cremations overtook burials for the first time in Minnesota's history, according to Tim Koch at the state's health department. The director of mortuary science said this shows Minnesotans are opening up to more nontraditional burial options, straying from the way their grandparents were buried.

Mayo Clinic started in 2006

Minnesota was the first state to approve this form of disposition in 2003 and the Mayo Clinic started using green cremation in 2006 to dispose of cadavers.

The Mayo Clinic's involvement got Bradshaw's thinking greener thoughts. After conducting a focus group, finding a manufacturer and exploring options that fit their goals of greener choices, it just made sense.

"I think we've all talked more about green in the past few years," said Jason Bradshaw, vice president and COO at Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services. "As people look at their end-of-life options I think they're weighing those options the same as others."

Bradshaw has seen customers shy away from cremation because having a loved-one subject to "the flames" seemed irreverent.

A green cremation -- without any additional services -- costs the same as flame-based cremation at Bradshaw's -- $2,295. It's the environmental costs that vary, he said.

Green cremation reduces the carbon footprint by 75 percent and eliminates the concern of mercury emissions from dental fillings, compared to traditional cremation, Bradshaw said.

Also called alkaline hydrolysis, green cremation uses potassium hydroxide to accelerate the natural breakdown process a body goes through underground. The body is placed in a stainless steel "resomator" where a mixture of water and chemicals are added to kick-start decomposition. What can take up to 25 years underground can be done in three to four hours and results in the same end product as traditional cremation: ash.

How green is it?

While fire evaporates tissue and releases some remains into the air, green cremation uses a solution that dissolves tissue, with excess fluid drained into the waste-water treatment system, said Terry Regnier of the Mayo Clinic.

"Is it perfect? No, but it's certainly a giant step in the right direction opposed to fire cremation," said Regnier, the director of anatomical services at Mayo.

But how green is it? That's the question Steve Willwerscheid of Willwerscheid Funeral Home and Cremation Service is asking.

"Green depends on how you look at it," said the St. Paul business owner. "We always say there are different shades of green."

Green burials, where a body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and buried without a casket is the "greenest" way, he said, and one that's still in the education phase.

Willwerscheid started offering green burials two years ago in response to trends. It's just one of the options on the spectrum that used to only offer a burial or cremation.

"All of these options are good for society," he said. "It lets people grieve the way they want to grieve."

While the future of the funeral industry is unknown, professionals are waiting for customers to tell them what's next.

The latest blip on the industry's radar is another green process called promession, where bodies are frozen, broken in to smaller pieces and then freeze-dried before being buried.

"The funeral industry is reactive, we react to society, we don't invent things," said Willwerscheid. "We've always followed what society is asking for."

Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154

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