A gentler cremation by water can avoid harmful emissions

Kate Muscat believes aquamation, a cremation by water, is an ideal alternative to traditional burials and cremation by fire that can also provide a dignified goodbye to dear beloved without any harmful environmental emissions. MATTHEW VELLA sits down with her

Kate Muscat
Kate Muscat

It was none other than anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu who in 2015, desiring a no-frills ceremony on his death, requested specifically a cheap coffin and eco-friendly cremation.

The method employed to avoid the environmental toll of a cremation by fire, was aquamation, an environmentally friendly alternative that uses water.

It is a method that Kate Muscat hopes will achieve the green light in the near future for the land she owns next to the Żabbar cemetery, as a way of offering a dignified, and possibly cheaper alternative to traditional forms of burial.

Muscat, who hails from a British medical and funerary background, is married to Jeremy, a lawyer with construction interests – together, the couple behind Repose Crematorium hope they will pioneer a facility providing both religious and non-religious ceremonies, with a Chapel of Rest that will allow mourners to view their departed loved ones in a familiar surrounding that is not the hospital morgue.

But Muscat hopes the planning and health authorities will respond positively to her plans to introduce aquamation to Malta, an environmentally friendly cremation that does away entirely with the toxicity of a cremation by fire.

In aquamation, or “alkaline hydrolysis”, the body of the deceased is immersed for three to four hours in a mixture of water and a strong alkali, such as potassium hydroxide, in a pressurised metal cylinder and heated to around 150 degrees Celcius.

The process liquifies everything except for the bones, which are then dried in an oven and reduced to white dust, placed in an urn and handed to relatives.

But the process is not yet legislated in Malta. That could mean a long waiting game for the Muscats.

“As a nation we are a very mixed demographic these days – we know there are people who want the opportunity to have a ceremony in Malta at the site of a cremation,” Muscat says.

“Take Hindus, of which there is a high level of believers in Malta who would desire to be cremated. Or non-religious people who would appreciate a ceremony in our Chapel of Rest, with the body presented decorously in a coffin, rather than at the morgue. Some funeral services are already offering cremation in Sicily, a process that naturally carries a logistical cost.”

Malta’s planning regime has spent years debating policies on where to site a crematorium: in 2019, then Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar, having spearheaded the proposed law on cremation, said it was likely the government would allow just one crematorium, tagged at a cost of €1.5 million. Earlier in 2015, MPs in the parliamentary committee for environment and development took it upon themselves to declare that aquamation should be excluded from any planning policy, with one Nationalist MP, Ryan Callus, claiming the remains of the body would “get drained into the sewage system”.

But Muscat says this is incorrect. While the product is the same as normal crematorium, Muscat insists that bodies cremated by fire are never 100% recovered in ashes.

“When a body is burnt in a crematorium, the ashes have to be swept out of the oven, and it is never fully cleaned – with aquamation, the process is clean and efficient, sterilises any bacteria, and there is absolutely no DNA that gets left in the water. Nobody is getting ‘washed down the drain’,” she says.

Additionally, cremation by fire requires a lot of fuel, globally resulting in over 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, accounting for around 0.02 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions – enough that some environmentalists are trying to rethink the process.

“I would never advocate for something that would create a plume of smoke over Malta from some chimney,” Muscat says, who estimates that a basic aquamation service would start from €1,500 – a couple of thousands cheaper from traditional Maltese burials.

“I believe we also want to reduce the taboo surrounding death. Apart from the ecological perspective on emissions or land space with traditional burials, I speak to many Maltese who feel hurt by the lack of decorum on the way people are buried – and I understand that while death is a solemn moment, many also would like to celebrate a person’s life, in a ceremony where people can speak fondly of their beloved ones.”

It is a story common to many families: crews of dishevelled cemetery groundsmen noisily removing the concrete slabs at the Addolorata, perhaps cleaning out the remains of the last burial as bones get placed inside a large tupperware container, and the ham-fisted manner in which the coffin is laid down into the grave with ropes.

“Apart from the Chapel of Rest, a Garden of Remembrance will allow for some 400 colombariums that can hold up to six urns, for families to be entombed in these spaces should they wish.”

Little so far is said about the environmental impact of any crematorium that would operate by fire in Malta. In the United States, regional environmental regulations require scrubbing or filtering systems, such as after-chambers that must then burn and neutralize pollutants like mercury emissions from dental fillings. However, these filters do not neutralise the CO2 generated by cremating a body, including the gas generated as a by-product of heating that body up to 600-700 degrees Celsius or more, a process believed to create about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year in the U.S. alone.

“It’s not just land and space issues,” Muscat says about the need for burial spaces and their take-up of land. “Water cremation requires a lot less energy than cremation by fire, which send pollutants in the air and can result in deleterious residue.” A case in point is mercury pollution when tooth fillings are vaporized: in the United Kingdom, over 16% of all mercury emitted comes from crematoria.

A report by Dutch research group TNO said resomation, or aquamation, had the lowest environmental impact of all funeral methods, for even traditional burials take up space underground, and the decaying process emits methane, apart from coffins that use steel, copper, bronze or wood. Even formaldehyde-based embalming chemicals can leak into the soil.

For Kate Muscat, this mission is not simply about business.

“I really do not want to make this about money – I would never charge a family to put a baby to rest. But I do believe in science, and cremation has a significantly smaller carbon footprint, over six times less than flame cremation and over three times less than burial.

“More people are becoming increasingly aware of their own environmental footprint... even in death. Water cremation offers people a more natural, gentle and environmentally friendly choice.”

How does aquamation or eco-resomation work?

The organic substances of the body are dissolved in water during aquamation or eco-resomation. This process is carried out in the eco-resomation machine by a mixture of hot water and potassium hydroxide.

This process is also known as alkaline hydrolysis. In order to break down the chemical compounds in the body and dissolve them in water, the machine is heated and pressurised to a temperature of approximately 180 degrees Celsius and 11 Bar.

After approximately two hours, only effluent and calcium from the bones remain.

The bones are washed, dried and ground into a white powder. After neutralization, the remaining liquid, the effluent, consists of water and dissolved organic substances such as sugars, amino acids, salts and fatty acids.

The effluent, containing the organic substances of the deceased, can be returned to nature in the form of fertilization (cradle to cradle). The effluent contains many nutrients that are particularly beneficial to forests, fields or memorial sites.

After the process, dried bones remain, which are then pulverized into a white powder. The volume of remains is about 40% more than with cremation.