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Farewell to a very British way of death

With space for burials scarce and cremations bad for the environment, ministers are considering radical solutions for disposing of the dead

Brian Brady,Whitehall Editor
Sunday 06 April 2008 00:00 BST

Traditional methods of laying the dead to rest can no longer cope with the disposal of the 500,000 people who die in England and Wales each year.

The Government is considering radical measures as burial grounds fill up and crematoria are increasingly under scrutiny because the fumes produced by burning bodies contribute to environmental pollution.

Led by Harriet Harman, ministers have launched a concerted effort to find a solution. With options shrinking, the Government has turned its attention to the possibility of "boiling" bodies down to a handful of dust.

While it is hardly what is traditionally described as "a good send-off", "resomation" can at least claim to be kinder to the planet than some traditional ways of disposing of the dead. The process, developed in the United States, speeds up decomposition by immersing bodies in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide and heating to 150C (302F). More than 1,100 people in the US have already opted for resomation.

British pioneers of the practice claim it is "an environmentally responsible, flameless, water-based 'biocremation' process which sympathetically returns the body to its constituent elements".

The body enters the "resomator" – named after the Greek for "rebirth of the human body" – in a silk coffin and leaves as white bone ash, which is then returned to relatives.

Water Resomation Ltd, based in Glasgow, has talked to up to 15 local authorities that are struggling to find other ways of handling their dead. But because resomation is not accredited as a legal option for corpse disposal in the UK, the firm has struggled to convince the Government to let it begin its work in earnest.

Until now. "We are... aware of the growing interest in resomation as an alternative method of disposal," said Bridget Prentice, a justice minister, in response to an inquiry about the new technology in the House of Commons last week. "In view of this interest we are giving consideration to the representations that have already been made to us and are exploring how best to engage more widely on this issue."

The Independent on Sunday understands that the Government is in advanced legal discussions over how resomation could be licensed.

"I am encouraged that the Government is moving in our direction," said Sandy Sullivan, Water Resomation's managing director. "The Government has spoken to the [funeral] industry and knows that they are very supportive."

He added: "Cremation takes up to two hours to dispose of one body. We think we can do it in two hours, but we are telling people we can do it in three hours. Anything better than that will be a bonus – it would amount to three for the price of two."

The scheme could provide much-needed help for a growing problem. Local councils are advised that, at two burials per grave, an acre of land will accommodate only 2,000 corpses over a 70-year period, meaning that the biggest cities are quickly running out of cemetery space. In Greater London, half the graveyards are full and remaining capacity is disappearing at a rate of 10,000 interments per year.

A report from the Commons environment committee seven years ago railed at the "sheer magnitude of the problems facing our cemeteries" – and said the Government's handling of the crisis was "inexcusable".

Funeral rites: Many ways to rest in peace

Cremation: Became the favoured option more than 40 years ago; now seven out of 10 corpses are disposed of at crematoria. But complaints over CO2 emissions and the mercury in dental fillings, as well as the huge amounts of energy needed, have raised serious questions.

Lift and deepen: As justice minister last year, Harriet Harman allowed the deepening of 100-year-old graves to make room for up to three more coffins.

burial standing up: The Ministry of Justice's investigation of the burial crisis also saw the potential for corpses to be interred vertically to maximise plot space.

aeration: A number of cemeteries are planning to drive poles into older graves to allow more air in and speed decomposition. Plots could then be reused more quickly.

promession: Local authorities are investigating a "freeze-drying" procedure, where bodies are dipped in liquid nitrogen and vibrated for 60 seconds until they shatter into powder.

resomation: The early leader in the new generation of "human disposal" options. The body is placed in a resomator, and submerged in water and alkali at 150C. In three hours, it turns to liquid and soft calcium dust.

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