Council to consider application for water-based cremation service
The City of Swift Current is considering an application by a local funeral home to install an alkaline hydrolysis unit for water-based cremation.
Swift Current Funeral Home submitted the request to establish this cremation service as an additional use at its existing business location in a residential neighbourhood in the city. This type of application is a discretionary use under the terms of the City's zoning bylaw and therefore requires a motion at a council meeting to approve the development.
The application process also requires that property owners within a 75-metre radius are notified of the application and that a public hearing is held. The public hearing for this proposed activity took place at a regular council meeting, Oct. 9.
Swift Current Funeral Home owner and funeral director Dan Martens and funeral director Dominick Martens provided details about their application, and local resident Todd Tumback made a submission to oppose the installation of an alkaline hydrolysis unit at this location.
“The system itself is the same process really that occurs in nature when a body is laid to rest in the soil,” Dan Martens said. “With this system it is accelerated through the combination of water flow, temperature and alkalinity. We have also learned, as we researched this further, that our own human bodies actually utilize a very similar system in digestion with our lower digestive system. Our stomachs work on acid, and as the food goes further down our digestive system, it actually uses a very similar process to remove the nutrients.”
The alkaline hydrolysis unit will be installed in a new 30 square metre (325 square feet) addition at the back of the funeral home. A body will be placed in a basket cradle, which is then placed inside a specialized stainless steel vessel for the cremation process.
During the alkaline hydrolysis process a heated solution of 95 per cent water and five per cent alkali is circulated around the body of the deceased person. The alkalis used in the process are sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and potassium hydroxide (caustic potash).
All the alkalis will be consumed during the hydrolysis process and the sterilization process will destroy any pathogens. The body inside the stainless steel vessel will be dissolved and the final bone remains will be processed into a fine ash for return to the family.
Dan Martens emphasized the environmental benefits of the waterbased cremation process in comparison to the more common flame-based cremation. There are no greenhouse gas emissions, it uses less energy than flame cremation and it has a smaller carbon footprint.
“You will not see a smokestack, you will not smell anything by our facility,” he said. “The equipment, as far as the sound level, does not run any louder than what a household dishwasher would. So it's actually very quiet that way. In fact, it would be a type of system that if someone wasn't aware that it was installed in a facility, they would never know. There would never be any physical signs that it's actually there.”
He noted that Saskatchewan was the first province in Canada to approve water-based cremation. It has been available in the province since 2011, when Gray's Funeral Chapel in Prince Albert installed an alkaline hydrolysis unit.
Water-based cremation has been used for over 24 years at university and other research facilities as well as by pharmaceutical and bio-containment laboratories. Shands Hospital at the University of Florida purchased the first commercial system in 1995 and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota has used the process since 2006 for their donated body program.
Dominick Martens spoke about the safety aspects of this process. The alkalis that are used for the hydrolysis will be delivered and stored in a dry form, which are safe and easy to handle. Employees will be trained to follow the correct procedures and they will wear personal protective equipment while they handle the alkali. A bucket of dry alkali is emptied into the hydrolysis machine and an automatic safety lock will engage before the unit fills with water.
“From a safety perspective, the agents that are used are safe to handle,” he said. “It will only become active when there is water involved. So it's not anything to be concerned about that way.”
Todd Tumback raised a number of concerns during his presentation at the public hearing. He noted that machines will break down and malfunction, regardless of maintenance schedules or manufacturer quality or standards. He sketched a potential scenario when a nearby homeowner hurries down into his basement to save possessions if there is a blockage in the sewer system and the sewer is back flowing into his basement.
“If the machine discharges improperly neutralized chemicals into the system, that person now has caustic acid flowing into the basement of their house while they are trying to save personal possessions,” he said. “Even if the chemical is properly treated and pumped into the sewer, the owner now has effluent from the liquid cremation of someone's body flowing into their basement.”
He also raised concerns about the potential hazard of storing sodium hydroxide in the new building that will be attached to the funeral home. He is worried that damage to this building during any type of disaster will result in the exposure of sodium hydroxide to the natural elements, including rain water, which will create caustic acid.
“In the event of a fire at the funeral home there is the possibility that the attending firemen may not be aware of the storage of sodium hydroxide on the site and mix in large amounts of water without even being aware of the caustic acid compound they are creating,” he said.
Tumback acknowledged that the alkaline hydrolysis unit is a welldeveloped machine with the latest technology to make it as safe as possible, but at the same time it is an industrialtype machine with elevated risks and possible repercussions to the public and surrounding neighbours.
“I know there is a need for this technology and people also have the right to choose how they want their remains handled upon demise,” he said. “I can only suggest that this type of machine not be installed in a residential neighbourhood and a more suitable location such as the industrial areas be considered.”
Councillors are scheduled to make a decision on this discretionary use application at their next regular council meeting on Oct. 22.