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Searsport crematory touts new environmentally friendly process for breaking down bodies

Heather Steeves | BDN
Heather Steeves | BDN
Mark Riposta, owner of the Maine Coast Crematory in Searsport, shows off his new alkaline hydrolysis machine, which he touts as a more environmentally friendly way of disposing of bodies, on Thursday, March 22, 2012.
By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

SEARSPORT, Maine — A Searsport crematory is using a new method that liquefies human bodies rather than burning them to ashes.

Since the arrival of the alkaline hydrolysis machine on Tuesday, the Maine Coast Crematory in Searsport already has processed several bodies, according to the company’s owner, Mark Riposta, and he has a waiting list to process more.

His is the only working alkaline hydrolysis machine in the country processing bodies for the general public, he said.

The machine uses hot water and a solution similar to lye — sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide and carbon dioxide — to break down human bodies into their smallest parts — amino acids, salts and peptides. Those nutrients go into the city’s wastewater and the remaining bones are dried and crushed after 12 hours in the silver tank. The result is similar to the ashes produced by fire cremation.

“These are natural chemicals [we are adding]. They’re what your grandmother used to make soap,” Riposta said in his crematorium Thursday.

Riposta is marketing the machine as an environmentally friendly alternative to fire cremation. Fire cremations use about 40 gallons of propane per body to reach temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees and emit smoke and particulates, while the alkaline hydrolysis machine only has to reach about 200 degrees to do its work and it does not emit any smoke or gas.

The other environmental upside is that it leaves unnatural components behind.

For instance, during fire cremation, people’s silver tooth fillings get incinerated, which release mercury into the atmosphere. In the alkaline hydrolysis process, those fillings can remain in the ashes or be disposed of in another way.

On Thursday, next to the bone-crushing machine was a box that contained the dentures of someone who had gone through the alkaline hydration process.

“Those would have been burned in one of those,” Riposta said, pointing to his fire cremation furnace.

People will choose alkaline hydrolysis because of the environmental effect, Riposta said.

“This is for people who chose to live ecoconscious lives. They wear natural materials and grow their own food and want to be part of the environment. They’re going to pick this,” he said. “It’s the same reason you choose a Prius.”

Sally Belanger, executive director of the Maine Funeral Directors Association, is skeptical of the new process and said there likely isn’t a demand for it in Maine. She doesn’t think people will pay $1,995 for alkaline hydrolysis when regular cremation is $995.

“Green families probably wouldn’t look at alkaline hydrolysis because there are chemicals involved. I can’t imagine people wanting to pay extra for it,” Belanger said. “People truly into green funerals will look into green cemeteries where you can be wrapped in a sheet and dropped.”

Eva Thompson, vice president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, has been pushing alkaline hydrolysis for years now. It took Riposta about two years to find a supplier and get the machine to the midcoast.

“I’m excited to have another option,” Thompson said. “I think particularly in Waldo County there are a lot of people who are concerned with doing things in an environmentally friendly way, so he has a good location to try it. It’s another option and I’m curious to see how people will take to it. I think it might be slow. There is an ick factor people have to get over but, you know, it’s not pretty to burn a body either.”

Funeral director Jeff Edwards of Ohio says there will be a demand. He knows, because he operated a similar machine in Columbus, Ohio, until the state shut him down because the process is not a legal way to dispose of a body there.

In two months he performed about 20 alkaline hydrolysis cremations, Edwards said. During his visit to Riposta’s crematory on Thursday he said people like the idea of alkaline hydrolysis because it seems more natural — a sped-up version of what would naturally happen to a body.

“People prefer a natural process. This is the exact same as if I were to bash you over the head, drag you out back and bury you. If someone dug you up a year later, you’d get the same thing,” Edwards said. “Just faster.”

“It’s accelerated decomposition,” added Joseph Wilson, owner of Bio-Response Solutions in Indiana, where the machine was made.

Wilson pulled out his camera and scrolled through photos of bright green grass patches in an otherwise tawny field. He used the liquid produced from alkaline hydrolysis on animals to water the field.

“See what the grass did? That water has nutrients in it. It makes great fertilizer,” Wilson said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Riposa's alkaline hydrolysis machine is the only working one in the country. The process is used in some states to dispose of animal waste and cadavers but is not available to the public anywhere else.

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