By Ben Gruber
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida funeral home is offering a new alternative to traditional cremations and burials, selling what it bills as an environmentally friendly chemical process to dispose of dead bodies.
This month, the Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Florida, became the first in the world to perform a commercial "bio-cremation," using a chemical reaction instead of fire to dissolve cadavers.
The process involves pressurized water, potassium hydroxide and electric heat to generate an accelerated chemical reaction similar to what occurs to bodies when they are buried in the ground.
"We achieve what nature achieves in hours rather than months or years," said Sandy Sullivan, a Scottish-born biochemist who developed the new technique and is helping the funeral home to use the process.
Under the new method, bodies are placed in a steel machine resembling an oversized washing machine called the Resomator. The bodies are then immersed in a chemical bath and the remains are broken down by a process known as alkaline hydrolysis using water at high temperatures.
The solution contains alkali, a substance found in cosmetics and liquid soaps. The whole process lasts about three to four hours, slightly longer than heat cremations.
But similar to traditional cremations, what is left are bones and ash, which are placed in an urn and given to family members. The used chemical solution is then poured down a drain, said John McQueen, the funeral home president.
"The solution that is discharged is a sterile-based solution. There is no DNA whatsoever because the process breaks down the body to the basic amino acids," he said.
"What goes into the waste water treatment system is probably cleaner than most things that go into the waste water treatment system from our house or hospitals or nursing homes or other places," McQueen added.
Steve Schaal, the head of Matthews Cremation, the company distributing the Resomator machines in the United States, said market studies show a growing preference for cremations over burials, and the new process would likely appeal to the environmentally conscious.
Running the machines requires less energy than traditional methods in cremation, which use fire and gas, he said.
"We are reducing carbon output by 75 percent, a huge reduction in energy usage," he said. "We see this as a fantastic opportunity in which we can provide our funeral clients a new environmental way that is attractive to consumers."
Prices for the cremations run around $650 compared to traditional ones that cost some $500. Because the process is new, it is currently being offered at the lower price.
David Cadoret, a St. Petersburg nurse whose father died recently, was among the first to opt for the new method.
He said his father had requested before he died to be cremated.
Cadoret said he liked the eco-friendly benefit, but also found it more appealing knowing his father's body "is not going to be scorched."
"I didn't realize there was a second choice and choices are good," he said.
(Writing by Kevin Gray, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)