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N.H. considers lifting ban on chemical cremation

A chemical cremation process that dissolves bodies into a soapy liquid is gaining support in mortuary science, and more than 10 states, including neighboring Maine, have already adopted the practice, the head of a group representing New Hampshire funeral homes told the state Senate yesterday.

Peter Morin of the New Hampshire Funeral Homes Association told lawmakers that with sufficient regulatory oversight, the process known as alkaline hydrolysis is a safe and acceptable method for disposing of human remains.

The process uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to dissolve bodies in big stainless steel cylinders. It breaks down the body’s proteins into a dark brown liquid with the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell, leaving behind bone fragments. Those fragments are then powdered and can be returned to the deceased’s family.

“The point is to return something to the family so they can have something in their care,” Morin said. One New Hampshire funeral home is already offering the process to families by using an existing facility in Maine, he said, adding that the New Hampshire director of vital records and the chief medical examiner have approved that move.

Supporters of the bill argued during a House floor debate that the effluent byproduct from the process contains fewer bacteria than body wastes and produces fewer emissions than cremation.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, said that he offered the bill for philosophical reasons and that people should have the right to do whatever they want with their remains as long as it’s reasonable.

“All this bill really does is keep us up with technology. We now have the technology to dispose of human remains in another way that is actually more ecologically friendly,” he said.

Sen. Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, appeared uncertain about where the liquid remains would end up.

“What is the process to retain what they have and not contaminate the water that you and I drink?” he asked during the hearing. Morin explained the material is usually kept in holding tanks and periodically transported to suitable disposal facilities where it can be treated and discharged, usually municipal wastewater treatment systems.

Meredith Cook, director of public policy for the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, spoke out against the bill.

“We oppose this process because every human person has an innate dignity that calls for the remains of every deceased person to be treated with the utmost respect,” she said.

The Legislature voted to allow alkaline hydrolysis in 2006, but reversed itself the next year and banned it. An attempt to lift the ban failed in 2009, but the House voted last month to lift the ban. The Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee will make a recommendation to the full Senate before it goes to a vote.

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