A clinical take on cremation

At present, people who die in Singapore are either buried or cremated.

Burial will be a problem in future, as Singapore has a scarcity of land, while cremation is environmentally unfriendly.

Other countries have different methods of disposing of corpses.

Tibet, for instance, practices sky burial, where a corpse is exposed to the elements on a mountain top and left to decompose or be eaten by carrion birds. However, the odour emitted would pollute the environment.

There is also sea burial, though this may cause water pollution.

We need other methods that will not harm the environment and which will also accommodate the dead person's and the family's religious beliefs.

One method to consider is alkaline hydrolysis or biocremation. It has already been adopted by some states in the United States.

The corpse is submerged in a heated, pressurised solution of water and potassium hydroxide, which liquefies all the soft tissues in less than three hours.

The liquefied body tissue can then be disposed of in the municipal water system. Tests show that the liquid is sterile and contains no remnants of DNA.

The bone fragments are crushed into ashes in a machine and returned to the family. Metals in artificial joints, dental fillings and implants are also removed.

This process produces a third less greenhouse gas than cremation and uses one-seventh of the energy used in cremation.

It sounds clinical and heartless but I am sure bereaved families would not mind being given this third option and I hope the National Environment Agency will seriously consider it.

Heng Cho Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'A clinical take on cremation'. Print Edition | Subscribe