An End-of-Life Decision You Probably Haven't Considered

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Aquamation, otherwise known as water cremation, is said to be a “greener” form of cremation and uses alkaline hydrolysis to process pet remains
  • Remains are placed into a aquamation machine, which uses water, temperature and alkalinity — essentially hot, pressurized water and lye — to break down the body over a period of about 20 hours
  • After the process, a resulting sterile fluid is produced that can be safely discharged while the remaining solids are the mineral ash of bones, which are ground down into a white-colored, sand-like ash
  • Compared to conventional cremation, aquamation has zero emissions, low energy consumption and one-tenth the carbon footprint, at a similar cost
  • Aquamation may appeal to pet owners looking for a more environmentally friendly and gentler method of dealing with their pet’s remains after death

When a beloved pet dies, owners must decide how to memorialize her remains. While some prefer traditional burial or cremation, the environmental costs are causing some pet owners to seek out greener alternatives.

Burials involve adding wood, steel and embalming fluid (some 60,000 tons of steel and 4.8 million gallons of embalming fluids for human burials annually1) to the ground, while cremation is a source of toxic air pollution. A greener alternative is aquamation, otherwise known as water cremation, which uses a process known as alkaline hydrolysis.

A Greener, Zero-Emission Form of Cremation

Alkaline hydrolysis is a process similar to natural body decomposition, but at an accelerated pace. Remains are placed into a aquamation machine, which uses water, temperature and alkalinity — essentially hot, pressurized water and lye — to break down the body over a period of about 20 hours.

The fluid that is produced is a coffee-colored "neutral liquid solution of amino acids, peptides, and sugars that is suitable for release onto the earth," notes Guardian Pet Aquamation,2 while the remaining solids are the mineral ash of bones, which are ground down into a white-colored, sand-like ash. Some people choose to have the ashes returned to them in an urn or memorialize them in a piece of jewelry.

Others choose to spread the ashes over their pet's favorite park, while some aquamation centers will spread ashes over their land for you and offer owners a chance to come back to visit, similar to a cemetery. "It is not uncommon to see owners roaming the land on the weekends to visit their pets who have passed," the Coloradoan reports of Guardian Pet Aquamation in Loveland, Colorado.3

Compared to conventional cremation, aquamation has zero emissions, low energy consumption and one-tenth the carbon footprint, at a similar cost. Jerry Shevick, founder of Peaceful Pets Aquamation in Newbury Park, California, wrote in Dogster:4

"What's even more staggering is that it uses one-twentieth of the energy, cutting natural gas use and carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent and electricity by 66 percent. It is also mercury-free. Think about this: The amount of energy a crematory uses to incinerate a cat would heat your house for three days in minus-15-degree weather. The comparison isn't even close."

Some are also struck by the differences in resulting mineral ash from aquamation versus cremation. While cremation ashes may be course and discolored by carbon, the ash from aquamation is finer and often compared to sand. "The ash is completely sterile, so it can be buried or dispersed without any issues or problems," Peaceful Pets Aquamation says. "And, because of its sand-like appearance, many clients find it more comforting to handle."5

Aquamation Was First Patented in 1888

Although it may sound like a new technology, the process behind aquamation — alkaline hydrolysis — was first patented in the U.S. in 1888 and promoted as a way to quickly dispose of animal bodies and use the remains as fertilizer.

The technology has also been adopted by laboratories looking for ways to get rid of diseased bodies, including those with infectious agents like mad cow disease.6 It's been in use commercially for pet aquamation since the early 2000s and, in case you were wondering, can be used for humans as well, although it's currently only legal for this purpose in 15 states.

Aside from its eco-friendly component, some pet owners are drawn to aquamation because it comes across as a gentler, more natural process that allows the body to return to the earth, as opposed to a process such as embalming, which attempts to use an unnatural process to preserve the body, and use of caskets, which separate the body from the earth. Bio-Response Solutions, which manufactures alkaline hydrolysis systems for human and pet disposition, explains it this way:7

"Alkaline hydrolysis is essentially an accelerated version of what takes place in natural decomposition. A combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity is used to accelerate the natural course of tissue hydrolysis. At the end of the process the body has been returned to its natural form, dissolved in the water. Remember, our bodies are 65 percent water to begin with! Similar to cremation, the only solid remains are the mineral ash of the bones."

Take Your Time to Make Important End-of-Life Decisions

On some occasions, a pet may die unexpectedly and you may be faced with end-of-life decisions on top of your shock and grief. A better option is to think about end-of-life care while your pet is still here. Although it's difficult, having a plan in place will reduce fear and ensure the most peaceful transition for you and your pet.

Things to think about include hospice care, euthanasia (in-home or at a veterinary office) and how you want your pet's remains handled after death, including burial, aquamation and cremation. For the latter two options, also decide if you'd like the ashes returned to you or if you prefer the clinic to disperse them for you. You may also want to look into urns, jewelry, paw prints and other available memorials.

If you're interested in aquamation, be aware that it's still a very new industry and isn't as widely available as other options. However, you can ask your veterinarian if there are any aquamation centers nearby and also try searching online. Availability is likely to increase as more people seek out greener funeral options for themselves and their pets.

Another resource I recommend for all pet owners is my two-part Winding Down webinar, which covers many of the difficult topics involved in the death of a pet, including what to expect from her aging body, when and how to transition from preventive to comfort care and the dying process.

It concludes with information on the cycle of grief that will help you to move through the mourning process and feel more at peace with your pet's life and death.