Dissolving our dead bodies in lye: a good idea, but is it going far enough?

It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?
It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?Courtesy Jill Greenseth
Here at Science Buzz, we strive to keep all y’all Buzzketeers surfing on crest of the new wave, sliding down the cutting edge of the razor that is the future, and, um, up to date on new things. With this in mind, I thought it was important to inform you of the latest, greatest craze in dealing with your useless dead body: alkaline hydrolysis. For everyone already in the know, please just put your heads down on your desks, and wait quietly while the rest of us catch up. Thank you.

Alkaline hydrolysis is, if possible, even cooler than it sounds, and as simple as ABC, but I’ll walk you through it from the beginning. So… You’re born (embarrassing!), you go to prom (best night ever), you live your life (boooring), and then you die. And then what? You’ve got this dead body on your hands, and it’s too big for the garbage disposal in the sink, and Goodwill won’t accept them any more, so what are you supposed to do? Bury it? Yeah, if you’re some kind of chump. Oh, hey, why not bury your body? People have only been doing that for, like, thousands of years. Please. You wouldn’t wear sunglasses from a thousand years ago—everybody would know how lame you are—so why bury your lousy body like they would then? What else…a Viking funeral, maybe? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there some things are just too cool, and most people can’t pull them off. For your average dead Joe, trying to go out with a Viking funeral would be like…like wearing an Armani suit to your fish gutting job—not the right fit.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, technology has come through and offered a fancy new way to go: dissolving your body in lye. One minute you’re a sad, dead old man lying on a slab, and a few hours later you’re a “brown, syrupy residue” ready to be dumped out on the street. This is alkaline hydrolysis.

Basically what happens is this: you’re put into a large tank filled with a lye solution, heated up to 300 degrees, and submitted to about 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (about the same as the pressure in a bicycle tire). It’s like being in a pressure cooker, kind of, but a little more intense. What’s left when you’re done cooking are a few little crunchy solids, and a “coffee-colored liquid with the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell,” which can be safely poured down the drain (or toilet, depending on your preference). Or maybe you could have it misted over the guests at your funeral service. Anything’s possible!Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!
Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!Courtesy hilderbrant

Alkaline hydrolysis is currently only legal—in medical facilities—in Minnesota (yes!) and New Hampshire, but some folks are pushing to have it become a legal process at funeral homes around the country. It’s environmentally cleaner, they argue, than cremation, and doesn’t require the physical space of burial. It would hardly be the grossest thing dumped down our drains, too, as blood and spillover embalming fluid are routinely flushed away at funeral homes. Opponents point out that it’s kind of yucky. Also, some believe that the process is an “undignified” way to treat a human body. To this I say, “True, sir, true, but you know what else is undignified? Belly shirts. And we’ve gotten used to those. Some people even like them.”

So, yeah, get used to it folks. The future is now, and it’s brown, syrupy, and smells like a litter box.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

Any word on how this type of disposal compares to burial or cremation in cost? Cremation rates are skyrocketing as people see how much more affordable an option it is to embalming and burial. I have a hunch that this would cost more than cremation with the more sophisticated labor involved.

posted on Mon, 05/12/2008 - 2:13pm
bryan kennedy's picture

The National Agricultural Biosecurity Center Consortium
USDA APHIS Cooperative Agreement Project, Carcass Disposal Working Group (wowzah...that's a long title) estimates that disposing of dead animal carcasses with alkaline hydrolysis would cost about 16 cents per pound of...well, flesh.

I don't know if this costs is similar for humans bodies, but how different can we be when it comes to dissolving in a vat of lye. 16 cents per pound has got to be cheaper than in ground burial, but I don't know how it compares to cremation.

Oh, and here is a big ol' PDF full of statistics from the NABCCUSDAAPHISCAPCDWG about alkaline hydrolysis of animals.

posted on Thu, 10/16/2008 - 6:39pm
47's picture
47 says:

From what I just read on another site it says you can get some to dissolve a couple bodies for 15 dollars so its very cheap. and unlike acids that are tracked when bought in bulk they are not so strict about lye because of its agriculture use

posted on Mon, 06/18/2012 - 8:54am
EWatson02's picture
EWatson02 says:

Eh, I'd say go for it if you want it. The idea of dumping it down a drain kind of squicks me, but as you mentioned in your entry, there are worse things that get dumped. And besides, many people choose to have their ashes sprinkled in bodies of water. (To be fair, though, those are often for religious or symbolic reasons, rather than a convenient way to get rid of a body.)

As for me, though, I want to donate my remains (in particular my bones), so I'd like to stay intact for at least a little while longer.

posted on Thu, 10/16/2008 - 8:27pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I was a proponent of the Alkaline hydrolysis for humans immediately when I heard about it. I think that it is possible to find dignity in the process as well as give ritual to it as other forms have done. It's a wonderful thiing to go back to the earth in a non-toxic way. It's great that we could stop stacking up coffins and escalating costs of burials etc. I would like to donate my organs and then follow up with the dissolving. I would like my 'goo' poured in a flower garden and in the woods ceremoniously. The energy returns to the earth in a positive way. The world is running out of space for booming population, industrialization, cemetaries. This could be a positive step forward for all of us.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 9:39pm
Hadleyb's picture
Hadleyb says:

Ever since I read about this in the book STIFFS (a wonderful read) I've hoped it would become the preferred way to dispose of dead humans. In the book it says that there is an industry using this method to dispose of dead horses and cows. Surely then it cannot be that expensive. My guess is the funeral industry will try to block its wide-spread use because it makes so much sense.

posted on Sat, 10/16/2010 - 12:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Well my first choice is to be put in a canister and shot into space, my second would be cremation and have my ashes spread across extremely far places apart by a couple people in my family that i think would need a little adventure in their life, third...... burial. Fuck being made into goo. And I do realize the first one is a bit unrealitic but whatever, the planet will be destroyed one day and become something better when the milky way collides with the andromeda anyways. So it won't be a total loss on my part.

posted on Mon, 05/07/2012 - 9:09pm
piper's picture
piper says:

This basic system was used for over a hundred years, even in the United States. The military used "lye pits" to dispose of dead horses and mules. (Some fallen enemies were probably treated to the same method, in the same pits). It was relatively safe and eliminated the possibility of disease. Kept the flys down too.

posted on Sat, 12/15/2012 - 11:26am
Raymond's picture
Raymond says:

In Singapore, 84% of the dead are cremated. We are probably going to stick to this for decades to come.
Frankly, that liquid really really looks disgusting!

posted on Wed, 07/31/2013 - 5:09am
azaku's picture
azaku says:

You might as well put your body in a meat grinder
And feed the slop to the farm pigs or as chum for sharks... Come on burn the body if your out of space... so you have to get creative with death as you do with every other downright disturbing act you do with the human Body.... It's like your turn simple issues into a complex tasks

posted on Sun, 06/08/2014 - 4:47am

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