Sustainable burials – is water cremation the answer?

26 November 2020

As the shift towards sustainability continues, it is causing us to reflect not only on how we live but also how we dispose of our dead.

  • Ruth McManus

    UC Associate Professor Ruth McManus recently e-presented a paper called ‘The Sustainable Dead’ at an international ‘Death and Culture’ conference organised through the University of York in the UK.

As the shift towards sustainability continues, it is causing us to reflect not only on how we live but also how we dispose of our dead. University of Canterbury (UC) Associate Professor Ruth McManus has been exploring where this shift is taking us and recently e-presented a paper called ‘The Sustainable Dead’ at an international ‘Death and Culture’ conference organised through the University of York in the UK.

In her e-paper, Associate Professor McManus describes how new sites and forms of interment are being mooted and how attitudes to new forms of bodily disposal are also emerging.

“Along with the green burial movement, which has been around for quite a while, we are seeing a lot of interest in emergent processes offering high tech sustainable alternatives for body disposal.”

Alkaline hydrolysis or ‘water cremation’ is one such clean alternative that involves placing the body in an alkaline solution and then treating it so that it dissolves leaving only a white bone ash and waste water (containing no DNA). The process is not legal under New Zealand’s existing burial and cremation legislation. The law is currently under review though and Associate Professor McManus says once it is updated, change will be rapid.

“We’re very near a tipping point,” she says, citing pioneers in the field such as former nurse and midwife Deborah Richards, who is the founder of Water Cremation Aotearoa New Zealand and who hopes to bring this option to Christchurch over the next 18 months to two years.

Receiving accolades at this year’s Best NZ Design Awards was a ground breaking concept design by University of Auckland architectural graduate Brad Scahill for ‘The Awaroa Aquatorium’ on Christchurch’s Port Hills with kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land, at its heart.

“The process of water cremation lends itself to something like this with a focus on sustainable regeneration of the land.”

Associate Professor McManus is currently working on an edited collection called ‘Sustainable Dead’ and is also planning a book about contemporary funeral practices in New Zealand.

A past president of the Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ), Associate Professor McManus is a lead author of New Zealand’s popular undergraduate sociology text ‘Exploring Society’ and also co-wrote NZ’s NCEA curriculum in Sociology.

She is thrilled to have recently received an exceptional service award from SAANZ. “It is wonderful to be acknowledged for all the work that has gone on behind the scenes.”

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