A Winnipeg funeral-home operator has been caught in a legislative catch-22 for more than a decade preventing him — and others in the province — from offering an environmentally friendlier alternative to cremation.

A Winnipeg funeral-home operator has been caught in a legislative catch-22 for more than a decade preventing him — and others in the province — from offering an environmentally friendlier alternative to cremation.

The water-based technology, sometimes called aquamation (the technical terminology is alkaline hydrolysis) does essentially the same thing as incineration — reducing human remains to powdery ash. But the process requires only heated alkali, water and electricity; it does not emit any greenhouse gases and uses 90 per cent less energy than flame cremation.

It’s allowed in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Yukon, along with 24 U.S. states and other locations around the globe.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning human-rights activist who died last month at the age of 90, underwent the process, referred to as part of the "green burial" movement.

Kevin Sweryd has been trying for more than 10 years to get funeral home regulations in Manitoba changed to allow for a 16-year-old technology called alkaline hydrolysis that uses water instead of flames to reduce the body to ashes.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kevin Sweryd has been trying for more than 10 years to get funeral home regulations in Manitoba changed to allow for a 16-year-old technology called alkaline hydrolysis that uses water instead of flames to reduce the body to ashes.

Kevin Sweryd, who owns and operates Bardal Funeral Home & Crematorium and is the current president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association, has been anxiously awaiting a review of the province’s bereavement legislation for several years, hoping to see new regulations that would allow him to build such a facility.

Bardal operates out of an old building near the Health Sciences Centre with plenty of space to install the technology and build a proper visiting centre. But because of his location he’s never been able to install a traditional crematory because it is too close to residences.

The provincial Cemeteries Act states: "No crematory shall be constructed nearer to any dwelling house than 200 yards."

<p>Alkaline hydrolysis status in North America</p>

Alkaline hydrolysis status in North America

But that is just one piece of the provincial bereavement legislation puzzle standing in the way; the Funeral Directors and Embalmers Act and the Prearranged Funeral Services Act factor in, as well.

Beyond uncertainties of a legislative review, the province is also in the process of disbanding the Funeral Board of Manitoba, a not-for-profit regulatory organization, and roll it into Consumer Protection Office.

Bardal is part of co-operative of five funeral home operators who have a crematory in Selkirk, but Sweryd said many clients do not want loved ones’ remains transported to another location.

Sweryd is an advocate for aquamation, which is the term used by Bio-Response Solutions, the Indiana company that originated the technology; other equipment suppliers use names that include biocremation and Resomation.

"The line I have been given repeatedly from the province is when they do the legislative review — which I have been told is coming… which has been coming for 12 years — they we will look at it," Sweryd said.

Technology in use for decades

Alkaline hydrolysis technology has been in use a long time in medical and bio-containment applications.

The process became popular for the disposition of pets in the ’90s. Bio-Resolution Solutions, the Indiana company that first commercialized the technology has built and sold more than 300 of the units for the veterinary industry.

It introduced the technology to address human remains in 2005 and currently has equipment in 50 funeral-preparation facilities. Its first installation was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., which is still in operation.

Alkaline hydrolysis technology has been in use a long time in medical and bio-containment applications.

The process became popular for the disposition of pets in the ’90s. Bio-Resolution Solutions, the Indiana company that first commercialized the technology has built and sold more than 300 of the units for the veterinary industry.

It introduced the technology to address human remains in 2005 and currently has equipment in 50 funeral-preparation facilities. Its first installation was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., which is still in operation.

Bio-Resolution’s website describes the process, once the deceased is placed in the system, as gently circulating a heated solution of 95 per cent water and five per cent alkali around the body for an extended period of time, which varies depending on the set temperature.

The process typically takes six hours at 148.3 C, or 16 hours at 95.5 C. By comparison, flame cremation typically takes two or three hours at 870 C to 980 C.

Unlike flame cremation, the ash content is composed only of the mineral calcium phosphate remains of the deceased. There is no ash content from caskets, clothing, cardboard, etc.

Another interesting element of the technology is that after alkaline hydrolysis, medical implants remain in perfect condition and, conceivably, be repurposed. The process is a proven sterilization technology in which all pathogens are destroyed, as well as all chemotherapy and embalming agents, if present in the body.

Regulatory approval has proven to be a slow and painstaking process. In addition to the five Canadian and 24 U.S. states where it is permitted, legislative change is pending in 20 more U.S. states.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

"But they tell me they can’t really address it right now because there is nothing in the act that regulates or governs it."

The Funeral Board of Manitoba said the current legislation it’s concerned with has no provisions for aquamation.

"Therefore legislative changes would be required for the practice to be offered in Manitoba," a spokesperson said.

It’s a problem that has affected implementation around the world: it may not be legal, but it’s not specifically illegal.

Bio-Response has a total of 50 of its units in operation, with another 15 to 20 in production. Other suppliers have smaller numbers.

Sweryd’s enthusiasm for the technology has a lot to do with competitive instincts. Cremations have become the disposition of choice, especially in Canada, accounting for more than 73 per cent of all internments, up from 54 per cent in 2005.

But since he can’t install a crematory, this is a great option.

Samantha Sieber, the vice-president of research at Bio-Response (and daughter of its founder) said when given the choice between flame cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, the latter is chosen 80 per cent of the time.

"And that is typically at a slightly higher price," she said.

While the cost for clients may be a little more, the long-term return on investment will be greater because of almost zero maintenance costs. Flame crematories need to be rebricked after a certain amount of use at significant expense.

An Aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) system, left, in a U.S. crematory next to two flame units.</p>

SUPPLIED

An Aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) system, left, in a U.S. crematory next to two flame units.

She has also found that the environmental concerns are not necessarily the most important consideration when it comes to the demand.

"You would think the eco thing would be the driver, but it’s really just an added bonus," she said. "For most people it is personal."

She related a story from a Saskatchewan funeral home, the first in Canada to install the equipment about 10 years ago; a family travelled several hours to purchase the service for their father — a firefighter — from Gray’s Funeral Chapel in Prince Albert.

The chapel is one of only two in that province after a decade of regulatory permission.

Drew Gray believes that’s because other operators offering cremations have already invested in the traditional flame equipment and do not want to make another investment in AH, effectively competing against themselves.

Gray said he decided to become an early adapter of the technology for the same reason Sweryd wants to install it — zoning bylaws would not allow cremation in his location. He is glad he took the leap of faith.

"We have had nothing but success with it," he said. "Our clientele embraced the concept right away."

And while Sieber may not think environmental concerns are the main driver for the company’s equipment now, in time that may change.

"It has an unimaginable role in the future," she said. "We keep trying to move things forward. When you step back and look, worldwide, the impact is going to be huge."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.