IN A changing world, funerals have been stuck in the Bronze Age. The two alternatives then were burial or flame cremation, and it is the same today. Unfortunately, rotting and burning protein-rich materials are both unpleasant processes, and both have significant environmental detriments.
Burial entails encumbering land and risking water pollution; cremation produces emissions of carbon dioxide, and pollutants such as mercury and dioxins. These problems can be avoided by alkaline hydrolysis: i.e., treatment with alkalies in water solution in a sealed container. This converts proteins into simpler water-soluble compounds, which are harmless — and, indeed, can provide valuable plant nutrients.
Disarticulated bones remain, softened but intact and easily crumbled to a pure white powder; again, an excellent phosphatic fertiliser. Alternatively, they can be dried and stabilised for burial in a small casket. This gives the same result as an intact body decaying for some years, while totally avoiding all unpleasantness and danger of pollution.
This application of alkaline hydrolysis has been known as a slow process for about 150 years. Reduction to three to four hours has been possible using a pressurised stainless-steel cylinder in equipment that is like a large washing machine. It is made near Leeds by British technology that once made boilers for steam engines. Having been used and found popular in Canada and the United States, and deemed not illegal in Britain, subject to planning and related permissions, several installations here are being considered.
IT IS timely to consider a Christian response. Burial in plots reserved in perpetuity is clearly unsustainable. But, to a serious Christian believer, normal cremation feels inappropriate, because it seems to be a dramatisation of the complete and final destruction of the individual. This is why the Old Testament prophet Amos considered “burning the bones of the king of Edom into lime”: a serious sin, even though Edom was a national enemy. In the Bible, the fires of hell were only for the wicked, and the “lake of fire” (a good description of a modern cremator) is for the devil. It is also “the second death” for human beings who are rejected on the day of judgement.
In ancient Roman culture, fire cremation was normal, but, with the advent of Christianity, it was considered inappropriate, and was universally replaced by burial in earth or in a vault or catacomb. Until the 19th century, cremation was never practised in Christian countries. Burial was “with Christ”, as the Christian notionally joined Jesus Christ in the cycle of death, burial, and resurrection. You cannot be cremated with Christ, as he was not cremated.
Christians and Jews, however, have always fully accepted that the soft parts of the body inevitably decay. God created them in such a way that they will “self-destruct”, and one description of this process is dissolution. In New Testament Greek, the words used are lyo, or katalyo. In English, we speak of “hydrolysis”, and we can describe an alkaline solution such as is used in water cremation as “lye”.
In New Testament Greek, katalyo can be used of the natural dissolution of dead bodies, such as in 2 Corinthians 5.1: “For we know that if our earthly house . . . were dissolved [katalythe], we have a building of God . . . eternal in the heavens.”
Jesus used the same terminology in St John’s Gospel to describe the fate of his material body. “‘Destroy [lysate] this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’ . . . The temple he had spoken of was his body.”
So, we can be “dissolved with Christ”; for this is the term that he himself used for the disappearance of his own earthly body. In the Christian tradition, the bones of saints and other distinguished people were commonly retained in a tomb or reliquary casket. In medieval times, such bones were sometimes cleaned by boiling in a manner analogous to water cremation.
IN WATER cremation, we simply achieve chemically in a sealed container, over three or four hours, what takes some years to happen naturally. The messy, smelly, unhygienic dissolution of earth burial is completely obviated. Everything infectious or noxious is eliminated, but everything imperishable is retained. This consists of completely separated pearly-white bones, which, in the Christian tradition, can then be buried in a miniature casket. Thus, a terrestrial token of our spiritual body remains, enabling a continuing link with our family and earthly home.
Of course, this can also achieved by fire cremation, albeit much less elegantly. But all congruence with Christian ideology and tradition is lost, and there is significant air pollution. The material has been contaminated and pulverised. Appropriate Christian symbolism would retain the integrity of the individual by avoiding pulverisation and scattering after water cremation, and burying the remains in a container in consecrated ground at sufficient depth to avoid disturbance. The bones are quite soft, and would eventually crumble, allowing a family plot to be used almost indefinitely.
Dr Paul Burnham is a retired senior lecturer in environmental science at the University of London, and a Reader in Canterbury diocese. He is an unpaid adviser to LBBC Resomation, a manufacturer of water-cremation equipment.