Water Cremation Technology Supports Traditional Burial Practices

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Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Trustee, Maui

I am a Native Hawaiian who is proud to have lived to see the renaissance of our culture and traditional Hawaiian ways after years of suppression and near erasure. That renaissance did not happen by accident but was accomplished through years of activism and struggle by generations of Hawaiians to restore time-honored practices imparted to us by our kūpuna.

Burial practices using the traditional imu method of steaming the human remains to separate the bones from the fluids and human tissue are among the customs that have been constrained and prohibited for decades because of contemporary Hawaiʻi health laws. The good news is that a new technology is now available that will allow us to safely prepare the remains of our loved ones in a manner consistent with longstanding Hawaiian traditions.

Water cremation is now available in 21 states and recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights activist, and anti-apartheid hero chose to have his remains aquamated as an environmentally friendly alternative to fire cremation.

Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, involves liquefying the body under pressure in a mixture of potassium hydroxide and water. The process is the same as that which occurs naturally when a body is buried, though at an accelerated rate.

A bill to legalize this new technology as an alternative to existing cremation practices is now being considered by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature. Kawehi Correa of Aloha Mortuary is an advocate of water cremation who has been on a quest to educate the mortuary industry, the Hawaiian community, and the general public of the advantages of water cremation as a means of honoring Hawaiians’ traditional cultural practice of preparing a deceased loved one for their final resting place. Ms. Correa and other Hawaiian practitioners will be continuing their efforts in the 2022 legislative session.

The advantages of water cremation over flame cremation are significant. Compared to traditional flame cremation, water cremation uses one eighth of the energy and delivers 75% fewer carbon emissions. It returns clean, sterile, long bones to families, and the water-based solution used in the process of alkaline hydrolysis will not contaminate the ground or sea.

Today, laboratories around the world are using alkaline hydrolysis in their research into highly contagious diseases and as an effective means of destroying prions, the infectious agents responsible for several neurodegenerative diseases in humans and animals. After two years of living in the shadow of COVID-19, what better time to embrace processes that protect public health and stop the spread of dangerous human-derived pathogens?

Change is always daunting and burial rites are matters that touch at the core of who we are and how we choose to express our final farewell to our loved ones who have passed on. This is an intensely personal and emotional matter and it reassuring to know that water cremation may soon be available as a way to honor and abide by our traditional values and beliefs, not only in life but also in death.

As the late Dr. George Kanahele reminded us, this technology will allow us to “enjoy the look back into the future.” It is time for us to use contemporary technology to preserve all that we cherish in our culture, including the traditions that help us manage our departure as well as the departure of our loved ones from our earthly world. I look forward to seeing water cremation become available as another means to prepare the remains of our loved ones for their final resting place consistent with our Hawaiian traditions.