Conversations about death now start with Facebook.
That was possibly the oddest insight I’ve gained from a couple of conversations in the past few weeks. Sharon Hartung, one of my former bosses at the global tech giant we used to work for, is now the founder of Your Digital Undertaker. Her firm deals with the messy reality that passing in the digital age includes a lot of passwords, accounts, and odd legal conditions that require attention in the way that property and pets used to.
Sharon probably extended the strategic side of my brain more than anyone I’ve ever dealt with. For the years I worked for her, I had a sideline explaining the first four of the five levels of her apparently effortless and intuitive strategic thinking that I could reverse engineer to co-workers, relying on her to explain the fifth to me. We met when she dragooned me into one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life, helping build the world’s most sophisticated outbreak and communicable disease management solution, one that’s helping Canada and the Middle East manage COVID-19.
But all things pass. We’ve both left the global tech giant and are focused on the next stages of our professional lives, both giving back in different ways. In her case, she wrote a book on the process of preparing for and unwinding digital accounts and assets in the eventuality of passing, and now consults with and assists clients and professionals in the industry to incorporate their digital life into the last wills and testaments.
20 years ago, this would have seemed ludicrous. Now it’s surprising how little we think of it.
When we caught up recently, my marketing mind — shaped by others before and after Sharon, but by her as well — started probing at how you would even start the conversation. That’s where the intro for this article came from. Apparently conversations now start with Facebook and move on to what do you do with Facebook in the aftermath.
This is CleanTechnica, so you know there’s a cleantech hook to this. And that’s funerals and funeral tech. Like many others, I’ve seen the headlines about composting funerals and mushroom funerals and natural burials. But I’m just not that focused on my mortal remains. I’ve signed them over to science and whatever disposal that they eventually receive after med students poke at my cadaver, and that seems fine with my loved ones. As a result, I haven’t paid much attention.
However, one of the people Sharon introduced me to was Richard Rosin, Winnipeg’s friendliest undertaker(TM), and one with a green funeral focus. He and a business associate are considering acquiring one of the greenest funeral technologies going, an alkaline hydrolysis unit. Richard was considering the merits of solar to power the unit, and as he was a friend of Sharon’s and I have a generally nerdy appreciation of tech I haven’t considered, I spent a few minutes researching it and considering the climate implications.
In Canada, there are about 300,000 deaths annually, and almost 77% of them now feature cremation. There are a bunch of social change reasons for that related to shifting patterns of religion, immigration and urbanization, but while fascinating, they aren’t the point of this assessment. What is the point is that cremation uses natural gas and some electricity to burn not only the remains of the dear departed, but also a casket as crematorium staff are typically not licensed to handle human remains directly. About 2.5 gigajoules of natural gas is burned during a cremation. At 59.4 kilograms of CO2e per gigajoule of natural gas, that’s about 150 kg of CO2e per cremation. That’s over a week’s worth of natural gas use for the average Canadian household with natural gas appliances.
That adds up. Across the roughly 231,000 cremations annually in Canada, that amounts to about 35,000 tons of CO2e a year. As Canada’s annual emissions are counted in hundreds of megatons, this isn’t a major source of alarm, but it is worth considering as we decarbonize all parts of our economy.
The USA’s numbers are a bit different. More people, so more of the inevitable, about 2.9 million annually. But fewer cremations with a widely varying split across US states, for many of the same cultural reasons mentioned earlier, for an average of around 60%. That turns into roughly 250,000 tons of CO2 annually.
But there is a solution (apologies for the unintentionally morbid pun, which I will let stand regardless). Aquamation — the name that Richard tells me is becoming the standard branding for the process — is emerging as a major contender. That’s the previously mentioned alkaline hydrolysis process. This process takes about 380 liters of water and lye in a pressurized vessel, adds the remains, heats it up to about 180 degrees C, well above boiling but avoiding steam due to the pressure, and leaves it running for roughly 8 hours. At that point the temperature and chemicals have combined to create a sterile liquid with some easily crumbled physical remains which are safe to put into drainage systems.
This process requires heating the liquid and maintaining it at that temperature for the duration, followed by a cooling off period. It runs on electricity, roughly 90-100 kWh of it instead of natural gas. That’s around the amount that will fill a Tesla’s battery.
And the CO2e savings are big. The Canadian average grid emissions of 140 g/CO2e per kWh means that the average Aquamation would emit about 13 kg of CO2e compared to cremation’s 150 kg, well under 10%. And as the chart above shows, the savings are much higher in grids with low emissions such as BC, Manitoba, and Quebec. All grids are trending toward the single digit grams per kWh that Manitoba and Quebec already see, so this chart will flatten over time.
The cost savings aren’t high, by the way. Even with Canada’s $170 per ton CO2 carbon price in 2030, that’s only going to add about $21 CAD to the cost of a $500-$4,500 cremation. Electricity is only about $11, so this cost isn’t material either. The equipment, on the other hand, can range up to US$400,000 for high-pressure, high-temperature devices. Assuming people opt for a green burial on virtuous grounds and it costs $1,000, the equipment can pay for itself quickly. Richard indicated that his funeral home alone in a market with a very high number of funeral homes per capita performs 100 ceremonies annually. The average for the US is about 150 ceremonies per year per funeral home.
However, the relevant number is the number of crematoria. There are about 350 in Canada. Unusually, it’s not immediately obvious how many crematoria there are in the US. In 2002, there were about 1,500 and the number of cremations has leapt up. Assuming the ratios are relatively equal, that suggests that each crematorium performs an average of about 650 cremations a year, 5 times the rate of ceremonies per funeral home. An aquamatorium would service multiple funeral homes in a region and could easily pay for the equipment in under two years. There’s definitely a business model that makes sense there.
But there’s a kicker of course. This low-carbon, low-pollution, completely reasonable method of dealing with the inevitable isn’t approved everywhere. We’re allowed to burn the bodies with fossil fuels and emit CO2 and other pollutants into the air, but in more than half of both the US and Canada, aquamation isn’t yet approved. The three provinces in Canada which approve it have about 24 million of Canada’s population.
In the US, 19 states approve its use according to Wikipedia, including Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah. The big population states of New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania haven’t approved it, so availability is spotty in the US too.
Cremation has increased rapidly over the past 2-3 decades, but with that increase has come a fairly hefty carbon debt, one that will have to be eliminated as we shift to a net-zero world. Thankfully, as with almost every domain I explore, there are already solutions waiting to be implemented.