The Resomator stands monolithic in the corner of a room in the bowels of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It’s as sterile as a hospital here, but every patient is already dead. This is the penultimate stage of their time under the care of Dean Fisher, director of the Donated Body Program at the David Geffen School of Medicine. Bodies are wheeled in under crisp sheets for disposal in Fisher’s alkaline hydrolysis machine, which turns them into liquid and pure white bone. Their bones will be pulverised and scattered off the coast by nearby Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps Base, where they will float and then disperse, because pure calcium phosphate will not sink. From the coastguard’s helicopter it looks like drug lords flushing their stash.
The machine emits a low hum, like a lawnmower several gardens away. The cadavers awaiting grinding sit in blue plastic containers at the back of the room, identities anonymised by numbers and dog tags. The chalky bones are soft enough to destroy by hand: touch a femur and it falls apart.
Fisher has been running this model since March 2012 and he still can’t believe it, he’s gushing like it’s a car on a game show. It is one of only three in the United States, and not commercially legal in California. He’s removed the stainless- steel panels to reveal the inner workings, all the pipes and machinery that are neatly tucked away. Bodies go in through the same circular steel door that the British Ministry of Defence uses on its nuclear-class submarines. “It’s great, isn’t it?” he says, beaming behind his glasses. “Oh man, it’s just the best!” Fisher has the kind of personality you can’t help feeling is wasted on the dead.
The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.
Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.
This, Fisher explains, is the future of death.
The GeoCities fansites of the 90s have been outmoded in every industry but death. There are sites that automatically play MIDI tracks when you arrive at them, cursor heads that turn into trailing doves when they move. Above them sit cheap stock images of old couples smiling. These are not the websites of an industry that likes change.
Burial and cremation, the most common ways that bodies are processed after death, haven’t fundamentally changed in centuries. The modern act of embalming, popularised during the American Civil War, is a physically violent one in which blood goes down the drain, untreated, after being pushed out by embalming fluid pumped through the vascular system. Full of nine litres of dyed-pink, carcinogenic formaldehyde and various other chemicals, the body is put in the ground, where its decomposition is delayed but not entirely so. In the first year, approximately half of the chemicals will seep out into the surrounding soil as the body putrefies, along with any chemotherapeutic drugs present in the body at the time of death.
In 2015, flooded cemeteries in Northern Ireland were reported to be leaching chemicals out of bodies and into the groundwater, posing a threat to the living nearby. In the US alone, more than three million litres of embalming fluid are buried every year. Lead coffins may stop chemicals seeping out, but the lack of oxygen turns the body into a black soup; old London cemeteries such as Highgate ask tourists not to lean on coffins in the catacombs in case they upset the structural integrity of the box and the soup pours out.
Seventy-five per cent of people in the UK are cremated, but few ask what it entails. They don’t know that halfway through the process a crematory operator will open the door and use a rake to hook the skeleton by the ribs and move it around to ensure the whole body is touched by flame. They don’t know that, despite the best efforts of crematory operators, bone dust catches in the bricks of the retort (the chamber in which the deceased is burned). Cross-contamination of bodies is inevitable.
Caitlin Doughty runs Undertaking LA, a nonprofit funeral home on Santa Monica Boulevard, and wrote about her time working in crematoria in her memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. She wages a gentle war on the industry through her YouTube series Ask a Mortician and a TED talk, trying to get us closer to our dead and, by extension, our mortality. After years spent dealing with bodies, she believes cremation is not the way to do it. “We’re sending our families into these intimidating industrial warehouses with behemoth fire machines belching natural gas,” she says. “It’s almost cruel.”
Doughty told me that if there’s a future for death beyond burial and cremation, it’s alkaline hydrolysis. It’s legal in the UK but, despite lobbying from advocates in the funeral industry who argue the process is more efficient and better for the environment, is currently only legal in 14 US states and three Canadian provinces.
Doughty says machines like the Resomator will make a huge difference to our experience of death. They can be installed in clean, bright, well-designed spaces without all the heat and noise of a crematory. “We have to do so much better in designing our death spaces,” she says.
Sandy Sullivan is sitting in a desolate London pub on a Tuesday afternoon explaining how his quest to change the funeral industry happened through the medium of mad cows. Just off the plane from Glasgow, Sullivan’s not-quite-ginger stubble shows flecks of grey in the sunlight. An hour from now, he’ll swap his dark jeans for a suit and head to the Cremation Society’s annual dinner, an invitation which he says proves that people are starting to take him seriously. Sullivan doesn’t like to tell people on planes what he does for a living; say you dissolve human bodies and you end up answering questions for the rest of the flight.
The British BSE epidemic saw 4.4 million cattle slaughtered between 1988 and 1998. The culled animals were burned in mass pyres, corpses heaped in the middle of the fields they once grazed. If you lived near enough, you could smell the smoke in your house. The flames charred the bones and rendered the remains safe enough to put in landfill, but failed to destroy the prions – the misfolded protein that causes the brain degeneration. As a result, in 2006 the European Parliament approved a new method of animal disposal: alkaline hydrolysis.
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At the time, Sullivan was working for a company called WR² (The “wr” stands for waste reduction), selling the machines that melted cows. The company had been founded in the mid-90s by two professors at Albany Medical College, who had patented the technique to dispose of contaminated animals – namely, radioactive rabbits. Gordon Kaye, who was working on cancer research, was frustrated at paying $300 (£235) to dispose of each rabbit. A colleague, Peter Weber, provided a solution.
Biochemists like Weber hydrolysed proteins all the time for amino acid analysis, but one of the ways of doing it – alkaline hydrolysis, using potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as lye – was rarely used because it was so destructive it tore apart the very amino acids the scientists were trying to analyse.
Kaye and Weber began to experiment, co-opting the university kitchen’s old soup kettle. They once stuffed a whole sheep into the pot, filled it with water and potassium hydroxide, and set it to boil. But fat plus lye makes soap, so as the sheep boiled, it foamed suds all over the laboratory floor.
By 1994, the professors had a patent, and a company, to manufacture huge stainless-steel pressure containers as big as the back of a double-decker bus into which numerous cattle could be wedged and dissolved cleanly and efficiently.
At WR², Sullivan pushed for the company to expand into machines for humans. In 1995 the company had built and sold one machine, by request, to the Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, for the disposal of several medical cadavers in one cycle. In 1998, Joe Wilson, their newly appointed company president and CEO, had built a singular human machine but it was considered too radical an idea for the funeral industry, so it remained under a tarpaulin in the factory. There’s a photo of Wilson smiling inside it, wearing a baseball cap and a plaid shirt, testing the fit of the steel coffin.
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“I started going to cremation meetings and did a little bit of market research,” says Sullivan. “Because of the inherent environmental benefits and low running costs from an energy perspective, it seemed an obvious fit [for the funeral industry].”
In the mid aughts, the company got a call from Dean Fisher, then director of anatomical bequests, Department of Anatomy, at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, asking for a machine suitable to process an individual human. They built him one from scratch according to his specifications. Seventeen days after they delivered the machine, WR² went bankrupt and stopped answering calls.
WR² hadn’t failed because of any lack of demand for the machines. Kaye and Weber, the scientists who founded the company, both agreed they were lousy businessmen and returned to their laboratories. Wilson decided to launch his own company, selling the machines to the livestock and veterinary industries.
By now it was late 2006. The Mayo had a machine to dissolve bodies, but no instructions. Sullivan saw an opportunity.
“It was a freaking mess. It was $380,000 just sitting there.”
The machine was not the dream Fisher thought it would be. He and a colleague had attended a national Anatomical Board meeting in Gainesville, Florida, and were given a tour of the university lab. They were taken to a room off the loading dock and shown Shands’ enormous WR² machine. Staff would stuff the bodies into nylon bags, hang them off ropes from the side, and dissolve five at a time. The bone was kept separate, but the fluid was sloshing around between them. “We thought it was kind of gross,” says Fisher. “And then we saw the finished product.” It was not the grey cat-litter bone grit that came from the crematorium.
Fisher had asked WR² to make him one for individual humans: to turn the chamber horizontal and to include a tray in the middle that the body could lie on, alone.
But when his WR² machine arrived, he couldn’t get it to work. “We’d run it, open up the door and it’d be a half-baked body.” He shields his eyes with his hands, mimes slamming the door in disgust. “You’d see flesh still on the body, some of the bones were free but most of it was just so gross and so bad. We’d have to run it three times. And this went on for about a month. We could not get it right at all. We had the crematoria cremating them again.” Even now he sounds genuinely heartbroken by the disappointment. It’s the only time when he’s talking about the machine that Dean Fisher is not smiling.
He was sitting in a sporting goods store soon after when Sullivan called him on his mobile. Fisher heard Sullivan’s Glaswegian accent, didn’t understand a word of it, and immediately hung up.
In death, the skull presents an issue. The structure evolved to protect the brain and is extremely good at its job: aside from the eye sockets and the underneath of the skull, flames have no way of getting inside, and neither does liquid. In a crematory retort, the flames shoot down from the ceiling and the skull is cracked and blown open violently, or helped along by a crematory operator with a long-handled rake. But towards the end of an alkaline hydrolysis cycle, when all flesh has dissolved off the skeleton and the bones begin to move around the machine, the skull bobs along the top with the brain still inside it.
This was not a big deal at Mayo where the majority of cadavers had had their skull caps removed for educational purposes anyway, but if Sullivan was going to transform the industry, he couldn’t go asking funeral directors to slice the deceased’s head open. When he finally got Fisher on the phone long enough to explain that he had worked at WR² and wanted to commercialise the idea for humans, Sullivan promised to fix the machine gathering dust in Fisher’s lab. Then they would experiment with it, fix the problem of the skull, try ways of taking alkaline hydrolysis to the commercial market.
Together, they devised a cage that holds the head in place so the eddy of liquid puts pressure on the skull and breaks it open like an egg. It was the most dignified way of doing it, and for Sullivan, dignity is important. He says this not in the euphemistic way the funeral industry speaks (“interment space” instead of “grave”), but because he genuinely means it. Sullivan worries about rival companies doing it badly, unsafely. He worries that their work will be lumped in with his own and put the technology back decades.
He’s referring, specifically, to Bio-Response Solutions in Danville, Indiana, the company his former colleague Joe Wilson started after the implosion of WR². After two years of manufacturing machines for animals, Wilson decided to follow Sullivan’s lead and revisit his idea from 1998 – a machine for an individual human.Bio-Response solved the skull issue by putting the bodies in head first, tilting the tank with a crank, and letting the weight of the body force the skull on to a spike, not unlike that which pierces the seal on a tube of antiseptic cream. As the head is crushed and the body dissolves, the feet slide into the liquid, but you can never be sure when they enter the water, whether they had enough time in there to disappear.
Bio-Response Solutions have sold nearly 100 alkaline hydrolysis machines – to veterinary colleges and pet cremation companies. Its human machines outsell Resomation’s by five to one. Wilson says he only went into the human side of the industry after Sullivan refused to do a low-end, low-pressure machine that family-run funeral homes could afford. He calls his company “the Ford of the industry. [Sullivan] has built a BMW. I would not have gotten into it if he built a machine for the average guy.”
Sullivan doesn’t like the skull spike, or the fact that Wilson is selling machines that cost a third of the price and take 14 hours to complete a cycle instead of four. “It’s disrespectful, it’s not dignified, it’s not Resomation,” he says. At an alkaline hydrolysis symposium in February 2017, the pair got into an argument, shouting over the heads of the crowd.
The collective failure to settle on a marketable name for alkaline hydrolysis is indicative of a fractured movement. Sullivan refers to a body being “resomated” but the term is a registered trademark, so no one else can use it. On its website, Bio-Response Solutions leaps through linguistic hoops to avoid calling it anything at all, using phrases like “this form of disposition”. Qico, another California-based alkaline hydrolysis startup, prefers “water cremation”.
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The lack of clarity has caused a confusion on a legal level about whether alkaline hydrolysis is simply a different form of cremation or an entirely new disposal method. In 2010, the Cremation Association of North America changed its definition of cremation to include alkaline hydrolysis, which doesn’t make it legal but identifies it as a variant of a process that already exists: you’re still reducing the body to bone fragments that can be returned to the family as ashes. Some states recognise it as a third method; in Oregon, where it’s legal, it’s “dissolution”.
Convincing the public is not the issue. “Every family that I explained the process to wanted it for their loved one,” says Jeff Edwards, a funeral director in Ohio who purchased a machine from Bio-Response Solutions in 2011. “The public is far from stupid.” But, while the cost of running the machine is cheaper for the operator, Edwards charges a premium price because the bodies have to be transported out of the state to do it.
As Jessica Mitford wrote in The American Way of Death, her 1963 treatise on the commercialisation of the funeral industry: it’s all about money.
“It’s always money,” says Fisher, standing by his Resomator at UCLA. “The big corporations – here in America, it’s Service Corporation International, it’s Carriage, it’s Stewart Enterprises – set up billion-dollar models to sell you a casket, to give you a ride to the cemetery in that hearse, to sell you the cemetery plot, to put up the marker. And they don’t want to compete against something that costs $45 a cycle.”
The people who stand to lose out financially are the ones blocking the way, Fisher claims: if alkaline hydrolysis overtook burial and cremation, casket manufacturers would be rendered irrelevant. The cremationists would not be able to take on as many bodies as they would ordinarily do, because the process is slower. The Catholic Church, he alleges, is against alkaline hydrolysis not on religious grounds, but because they own a lot of cemetaries and they would lose money on the unsold plots. (In 2007, Fisher demonstrated the machine for Sister Renée Mirkes, director of the Center for NaProEthics, who declared the process “morally neutral” in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.)
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Progressive independent funeral homes are slowly adopting alkaline hydrolysis – two in Florida and Minnesota have Resomators, more than a dozen have cheaper ones by Bio-Response Solutions – but while it’s less expensive in the long run to operate, family-run funeral homes will take years to make up the Resomator’s £330,000 cost. For the process to take off commercially, the corporations need to back it. Sullivan has just installed a Resomator in Rowley Regis, near Birmingham, his first sale in the UK after a decade of trying. It made the local papers.
But there is money to be made. “The current installations are seeing an 80 per cent acceptance rate,” says Jevon Truesdale, founder of Qico. “We want to make it 100 per cent. Get rid of [cremation] altogether.”
I meet Truesdale and Qico’s CEO, Jack Ingraham, at a rooftop bar in downtown San Diego. Ingraham has a few shirt buttons undone, his hair slicked back, says he’s a sucker for a restaurant with a view. Their machines are theoretical at this point; they have nothing to show in their office in Ocean Beach. But they have nice suits and they have mock-ups: the futuristic MZ-1 is white like an old iPod and shaped like a nautilus shell. It doesn’t look medical and it doesn’t look like anything related to death: thisis how they plan to differentiate themselves from the competition. They picture a machine that can do everything inside its shell. At no point does anyone have to come in contact with a bone.
Qico is here because the cremation rate in Japan is 99.97 per cent and if they replace every crematory retort with a shiny white MZ-1 they would quickly become millionaires. Its machine looks the way it does because Truesdale has already pictured it on the cover of Time. He doesn’t want to be photographed beside something that “looks like it belongs in a basement”. Ingraham has never seen a dead body but is trying to sell a machine that dissolves them.Truesdale and Ingraham pose a threat to Sullivan and his machine at UCLA, but Sullivan’s not worried. “These are wide boys as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Truesdale’s selling a concept. What he’s saying it can do, it can never do.”
Wilson agrees. “[Qico] don’t have anything. They have a picture of an egg.”
It’s possible that Qico will amount to nothing, but the alkaline hydrolysis movement is so small that each company could be tainted by anything the other does. As they travel the country explaining the process to funeral directors and helping to push bills through the courts, Qico doesn’t see legality or engineering an impossible machine as the thing standing between them and that magazine cover: they see a whole stubborn industry of businessmen just like them.
As Sullivan leaves to attend the Cremation Society dinner, he stands up and hands me his business card. “Be positive,” he says, putting his wallet back in his pocket. “I believe it’s good for society, it’s good for the environment, and the quicker the backward ideas of the industry are resolved, the better.”
Back at UCLA, Fisher shrugs. For years he’s been arguing with this industry, mired as it is in financial motivation parading as tradition. They don’t care that this machine, with its diminished environmental, emotional and financial impacts, could save the world – or at least delay its demise, one body at a time.
Amuffled dual-tone alarm sounds in a cupboard. Fisher opens it to show me a tiny implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, the batteries of which have been slowly running down for years. “It’s been through the machine and the battery’s still working. Crazy, isn’t it?”
On a small blue hand towel, below the buckets of teeth and fillings (teeth are separated from bones – metal fillings could break the cremulator in which the bones are ground into a powder), is a collection of metal hip joints, valves, stents that propped open the chambers of hearts, pins, plates; things that have washed up on the tray after the people around them have disappeared. The process is gentle enough to render a hernia mesh as new as the day the surgeon implanted it, but strong enough to bleach the colour out of glass eyes and fake fingernails.
Fisher motions to the array of pacemakers he’s collected. Aside from these few he’s saved, he has all of the metal recycled. The money he makes from the refiners goes toward the servicing of the machine; he says it ends up paying for itself. He flips over a pacemaker and holds it in front of my face. “If you look at all this, you can still read the label. You can’t put these in a crematory. You have to cut them out.”
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In the crematory retort, prosthetics melt or burn or, in case of a pacemaker’s lithium-ion battery, they explode. The titanium ball-and-socket hip joints don’t come out polished like a pristine mirror like in Fisher’s cupboard, they come out battered with carbon. The silicon breast implant that Fisher jiggles in his hand (“we call them jellyfish”) has already spent a good few years inside a woman and four hours inside the machine, but would melt like gum in a crematory and need to be chiselled off the floor of the retort by hand. Other implants, like plastic urinary pessaries or penile pumps, would never even be seen by a crematory worker. They melt and escape into the atmosphere through the chimney along with all of the mercury in your teeth.
In the corner of the room the Resomator’s cycle is nearing its end. The noise is more intense; the pump beats like a straining heart. Fisher lets me press the red button to stop it and Alex Rodriguez, Fisher’s right-hand man, swings open the door. There on the tray, amid steam, lays the skeleton of a 90-year-old woman who donated her body to the medical school. Rodriguez delicately picks up the larger bones and places them in a tray. As he does so, he tells me what he knows about her from her bones alone: that she had no teeth when she died, because there are none here. That she had osteoporosis, which turns your bones to dust before the cremulator. That she was small.
In the 80s, before Fisher worked at the Mayo Clinic, he was a funeral director in Minnesota. He knows where the money goes, and he knows when to be frank. He also knows how to comfort the bereaved. When he’s notified about the death of a donor, he calls up their family, thanks them for their generosity and assures them that he will take care of their loved one. He explains exactly what will happen to the body: that after the students have learned everything they can, their ashes will be scattered in the Pacific Ocean and a memorial service will be held in their memory.
If you’re interested in donating your body one day, Fisher will explain all this to you personally. He’ll stand you in front of this huge, silver machine and explain exactly how it works. And later, after your remains have helped to teach the surgeons of the future, Fisher will slide you in, quickly and quietly turning your body back into the biological blocks that built you.
Hayley Campbell is a freelance journalist and the author of The Art of Neil Gaiman