Source: Wells Street
Back in January 2021, Covid created such a backlog of bodies at L.A. County morgues that the local air quality agency lifted air pollution limits on crematories so they could work extended hours.
The retail cost of human aquamation ranges from $2,500–$4,000, making it more expensive than flame cremation, but more families are choosing it for environmental reasons.
All the while, a California crematory with zero air quality issues was waiting for state approval to begin operating, approval it should have received six months earlier. The facility could’ve been a huge help during the crisis.
But the state said no.
Seven months later, with Covid waning (for now), the facility finally got the green light. It’s been an eye-opening experience for two small-business owners who learned what happens when an entrenched bureaucracy is made worse by a pandemic that forces state employees to work from home.
“No matter what we did or said, it really didn’t have a significant impact on moving this thing through,” says Phil Barrick, co-owner of White Rose Aqua Cremation in the Southern California city of Escondido.
Early Wells $treet subscribers will recall my original story on White Rose, started by Phil and his business partner, David Perfito.
The two men already owned a wiring business, and one day they were doing an installation inside a crematorium office when they noticed how quiet it was. Not many calls. Customers weren’t complaining (that joke never gets old!). They did a little research and discovered the margins in the funeral industry are, well, very good.
So being entrepreneurs, Phil and David decided to start their own cremation business. Then they discovered “aquamation,” aka “alkaline hydrolysis,” a relatively new method of body disposal that the Cremation Association of North America says is greener than traditional flame cremation.
The two men spent $250,000 on an aquamation machine built by Bio-Response Solutions in Danville, Indiana, and they poured another $750,000 into building the business.
I visited White Rose last summer to see how the machine works. At the time, this is how I described the aquamation chamber:
“I’m standing in an immaculate room in Escondido, California, north of San Diego. Abstract blue paintings on white walls evoke gentle thoughts of water and the sea. In the middle of the room is a large and shiny metal tube lying on its side about four feet off the ground.”
David Perfito opened the machine for me and explained how the process works.
So how does it work?
Aquamation involves placing a body inside a tube with 100 gallons of water mixed with enough potassium hydroxide flakes to make up 5% of the solution. The tube is sealed, pressurized, and heated to between 200 and 300 degrees. The water then flows through the system, slowly dissolving the body, and the machine is tilted to let gravity remove the effluent.The process can take several hours — longer than flame cremation — leaving behind only bones and metal implants. (Unlike flame cremation, such implants do not have to be removed first.)
The fluids safely go into the groundwater system. The returning water is sterile, and it’s tested to make sure the pH level is harmless. Even drugs in the body or embalming fluids will be destroyed and neutralized in the process. The remaining bones are ground up into a fine powder.
Not only is the process cleaner in terms of air quality than traditional flame cremation, but families receive more “ash.” Laura Sussman of Kraft-Sussman Funeral & Cremation Services in Las Vegas has an aquamation machine approved by the state of Nevada. She’s used it hundreds of times, and she says the process is so gentle that even the tiny bones of a fetus survive, something that rarely happens in flame creation. “For that family, it’s a miracle, really,” she told me.
The retail cost of human aquamation ranges from $2,500–$4,000, making it more expensive than flame cremation, but more families are choosing it for environmental reasons. The process is legal in nearly half the country, and it’s approved for pets in all 50 states.