Thursday, October 6, 2022

Cremation by water: Wilmington’s first aquamation facility opens

Eric Bester tilts the aquamation machine upward by turning a wheel. The equipment can reduce a body to skeletal remains in 10 or more hours. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — Would you rather be buried or cremated after life? Or what about dissolved in water?

That’s the practice at Tranquility Cremation by Aquamation, a newly opened facility in Wilmington. Founder Eric Bester explained the process of aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is more affordable, better for the environment and, in his opinion, the most natural method of decomposition.

“Whether we realize it or not, water has a special meaning as who we are as individuals,” he said. “We are water –– 65%. Born through water. Made of water. Often baptized through water. So it’s kind of like a full circle. Go out through water.”

The facility opened recently in a white building on Delaney Avenue, next door to New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

“This is medical alley through here. It’s kind of an ideal setting to be in,” Bester said.

In the front office, the sound of droplets trickle as a water feature welcomes guests at the door. Urns are available to browse. Around the corner, a round table with tissues is set up for loved ones to organize the logistics of a death certificate or obituary.

The back half of the building is where the aquamation takes place — and it’s open for people to see how it works. A giant steel machine, which Bester compares to “a gentle whirlpool bath,” fits in the back room. Unlike the roar of a crematory, the system is rather quiet while running. Bodies waiting for their turn in the chamber are kept in a mortuary storage cooler.

The approximately $165,000 equipment comes from the Indiana-based company Bio-Response Solutions, which also works in the wastewater industry. The cost to purchase is more than the typical crematory, but the buildout for the smaller water technology is far less.

“The appearance of it is a whole lot less intimidating than a crematorium,” Bester said. “If you could put the two side-by-side and see how they operate, open the door of both of them, no family would choose to go in that fire brick oven over the aquamation process.”

The aquamation machine has a chamber to slide the corpse into. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Bester said he has not cremated a human body in two years at his funeral home, ​​Clay-Barnette Funerals, Cremations, and Aquamation Center in Shelby, N.C. Families often choose water over flame once introduced to the concept. It’s also a bit more affordable. The cost is around $2,000, compared to some local traditional crematories charging closer to $3,000. Tranquility is able to maintain a lower price since the equipment is housed on-site, keeping operational expenses down.

The oval machine unclamps to slide bodies into a chamber. The technicians, or “aquamationist,” scoop and manually pour a blend of sodium and potassium hydroxide into the vessel, then latch the door, turn a wheel to raise the device upward, enter some calculations, and hit “start.”

The swirl of the hot water and the alkalinity together reduces the body to skeletal remains over 10 to 12 hours, depending on the person’s age. A person who died young with denser skeletal system would decompose quicker than an older person. Comparatively, cremation can work through a corpse in roughly three hours.

“Aquamation is a gentler process so it’s a slower process, and it just truly dissolves,” Bester said. “As the water movement goes over our body, it dissolves our flesh down to our skeletal system.”

Throughout the process, fats are broken down to salts, protein to amino acids and carbohydrates to sugars.

“The process breaks down all organic materials into their most basic building blocks, so small that no trace of DNA remain,” explained aquamationist Kelly Howard. “The organics are dissolved into the water, which consist of 96% water and 4% amino acids, salts and sugars by weight.”

At discharge, the liquid is sterile. The facility is approved to return the water to the Cape Fear Water Authority.

The aquamation process uses water and sodium potassium. Technicians manually scoop the mixture into the machine. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Opponents of the practice often misconstrue it as an acid bath, but Bester explained alkalinity is the chemical opposite of acid. Anything unnatural on or in the body –– such as implants –– will come out with the bones at the end of the process.

“If you went through aquamation with a Band-Aid on your forehead, a Band-Aid comes back with your skeletal remains,” Bester said.

Bester said more of the individual is preserved through aquamation than cremation. With cremation, the body is charred and the ashes are unidentifiable bones. When cremated by water, pieces of skeleton return: femur bones, carpals from the hands, tarsals from the feet.

“You remember in chemistry class, the skeleton hanging off the pole? Well, that’s kind of, not exactly, but very similar,” Bester said. “That’s how a body looks after aquamation.”

After aquamation, the remains are brittle to the point they can easily crumble. They are reduced to powder in a pulverizer –– “basically, a fancy blender,” Bester called it. Families can keep the remains in an urn or scatter them in a meaningful place.

The operation is regulated by the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service. The business had to decompose its first body at the new site as part of a state inspection.

A popularizing alternative

Sometimes called “resomation,” water cremation has existed since the late 1800s. It is commonly used in medical schools to dispose of cadavers but popularized in recent years as a means to say goodbye to pets. However, it’s still not legal in many states and is considered somewhat controversial. Some opponents believe the practice lacks respect for the deceased, while others worry about the leftover liquid infiltrating groundwater or aquifers.

North Carolina legalized alkaline hydrolysis as a method of final disposition in October 2018. Around 20 states now permit the practice, which is viewed as more environmentally friendly than other methods of disposition. There are no harmful emissions and it uses 90% less energy than fire cremation.

Bester got his start in the aquamation business cremating pets at the funeral home in Shelby. He saw it as an in to building relationships in the community. Plus, more than three-quarters of Americans own a pet and half the population has two, Bester points out, making it a viable business.

The Shelby funeral home now dissolves the soft parts of around 40 to 50 animals a month. The cost starts around $100 for a small dog or cat and comes with a wooden urn and a certificate with an ink nose print.

As the business expanded, Bester began getting questions about cremating people through water.

“They’d bring their pet to us and they’d be like, ‘Wow, can you do this for humans?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but not in North Carolina, yet,’” he said.

Once the state legalized it for people, he quickly ordered the first human system in the state. Now he has his second in Wilmington.

Since neither South Carolina nor Virginia have approved alkaline hydrolysis, Bester serves families across state lines.

“We’ve brought individuals from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, all over North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee –– they all come to little Shelby, North Carolina, for aquamation,” he said.

Bester branched out to Wilmington, an area he said tends to prefer cremation over burials. Plus, he explained the water aspect is likely to attract those on the coast.

“We want folks that want simplicity, but they’d rather use water over fire,” he said. “So the Wilmington market was ideal.”


Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com 

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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