Aquamation: The environment-friendly way Desmond Tutu wished to be disposed

Flowers are laid over the coffin of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the state funeral at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, January 1, 2022. [Reuters]

South African anti-apartheid fighter Desmond Tutu was yesterday bade farewell in a state funeral at the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, according to the Archbishop Tutu IP Trust and the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, “was very clear on his wishes for his funeral”.

“He wanted no ostentatiousness or lavish spending,” said the foundations. “He asked that the coffin be the cheapest available, and that a bouquet of carnations from his family be the only flowers in the cathedral.”

As per Tutu's wishes, his body will be aquamated in a private ceremony after the requiem Mass and interred behind the pulpit.

Funeral of emeritus Archbishop and Nobel peace laureate, Desmond Tutu at the St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town. Desmond Mpilo Tutu (7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021) was a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position. [Reuters]

What is aquamation?

The news about Tutu's preferred way of disposal has opened a debate about environmentally friendly ways of disposing bodies. 

Aquamation has been around since the late 1880s. It was developed by a farmer called Amos Herbery Hanson who wanted to process animal carcasses into fertilizer. It was later used in labs to dispose of contaminated animal bodies.

The process has gained popularity in recent times as a preferred alternative to the more traditional burial and fire cremation.

Water-based cremation process

Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a water-based cremation process that is commonly used to dispose of human or pet remains.

It is considered to be more eco-friendly compared to flame-based cremation owing to the fact that it uses less fossil fuels and produces fewer emissions.

The process is commonly misunderstood as dissolving a body in acid – this is not the case.  

How aquamation is done

First, the body is placed in a silk bag, and then put in an Alkaline Hydrosis Machine – this is basically a metal tube containing a high-pressure mixture of water and potassium hydroxide heated up to 150°C for about one and a half hours.

The body tissue is dissolved in the process and only the bones remain. These are rinsed at 120°C, dried and ground to powder using a cremulator.

The ‘ashes’ are then handed to the bereaved family. The ashes can either be kept, buried or scattered as per the dead persons wishes or the family incase the deceased did not specify.

Desmond Tutu wished to be interred behind the pulpit at the St George's Cathedral, Cape Town. He had served at the Anglican Diocese as Archbishop for 35 years.