An Ohio funeral home that is the first in the nation to use a cremation alternative that dissolves bodies with lye and heat has effectively been blocked from using the procedure by state regulators.
Edwards Funeral Service in Columbus is the only U.S. funeral business offering the procedure called alkaline hydrolysis to the public, according to Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association. The process is touted by proponents as being better for the environment than cremation. While funeral homes in other states are moving toward the method, Edwards' owner, Jeff Edwards, told The Columbus Dispatch that he has used the method on 19 bodies since January.
But a memo issued last week by the Ohio Department of Health has left Edwards unable to continue using the procedure.
The health department's memo directed local officials not to issue permits required for disposing of bodies or accept death certificates when bodies are to be disposed of through alkaline hydrolysis.
Edwards told the newspaper he is considering legal action. "There's no law that says you can't do this," he said.
The health department cited a Feb. 16 statement from the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors that alkaline hydrolysis "is not an authorized form of disposition of a dead human body." The health department directive was based solely on the statement of the board, which advises the department on what methods of disposal are approved, spokeswoman Jennifer House said Wednesday. She said the department has reviewed the process and found that it does not pose any risk to public health.
An official with the funeral directors board did not immediately return a message seeking further information.
Alkaline hydrolysis was developed in the U.S. in the early 1990s as a means to get rid of animal carcasses and has been used to dispose of human cadavers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Also known as resomation, alkaline hydrolysis uses a solution of water and lye, 300-plus degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders. Left behind is a coffee-colored liquid that has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell. Proponents say in most cases it can be safely poured down the drain and that, unlike cremation, the process does not involve fossil fuels or emissions.
The remaining bone and bone fragments can be ground into a powder and given to a family, similar to the remains left from a cremation, the funeral directors association said.
New Hampshire in 2008 reversed a two-year-old law that allowed the process. State lawmakers upheld the ban in 2009.
The procedure merely speeds up the body's natural decomposition process into a matter of hours, James Olson, chairman of the National Funeral Directors Association's green burial work group, told The Associated Press.
Olson said alkaline hydrolysis gives families who've lost a loved one another option and said anyone feeling squeamish about the method need only think closely about what's involved in cremation.
"I think burning a body at 2,000 degrees has more of a 'yuck factor' to it than putting it into a solution where it's just naturally going to break down," said Olson, owner of the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis.
Olson said his funeral business is relatively small and is not using alkaline hydrolysis because it would not be cost-effective to buy the equipment.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus has not studied Edwards' use of alkaline hydrolysis, but it would appear that flushing away the liquid would go against church teaching that persons should be handled respectfully after they die, said Deacon Tom Berg Jr., a diocese spokesman.
"We don't call for the separation of a person's remains, that they should all be kept together and buried together," he told the AP.
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.