People and Places

Ashes to Splashes: Q&A with the Owner of Ontario’s First Flameless Crematorium

No casket. No fire. And your loved one can be clothed — but only in all-natural fibres. Not the pleasantest of details to consider, but they are important aspects when contemplating bio-cremation: a relatively new process of dealing with human  — and animal — remains.

Bio-cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, involves dissolving a body’s flesh and organs in a water-based solution. Dale Hilton got his feet wet in the business with Hilton’s Unforgettable Tales, a bio-crematory for pets and Ontario’s first facility for water-based cremation. Since then, he has expanded to human remains with AquaGreen Dispositions, which opened in Smiths Falls in May 2015. This long-time volunteer firefighter continues to see his business grow as interest in more eco-friendly ways to deal with human remains increases. From ashes to splashes, dust to doused — Ann Silversides speaks to Hilton about taking your final voyage with the Green Reaper.

Dale Hilton. Photo by David Kawai

How do people react when you explain the process to them?

It’s a learning curve. They say, “Water?” But then they find the idea comforting, like being in a hot tub compared with being burned at 2,500 degrees or put into the ground.  I tell them bio-cremation isn’t all that new — it’s been available in many places in the United States for years. 

How green is this technology?

There are zero emissions, and there’s 66 percent less energy consumption than with flame-based cremation.

Bodies are delivered to you from funeral homes. They are laid down in an eight-foot-long stainless-steel cylinder, and a solution is added. What’s in the solution?

Water, potash from Saskatchewan, and salt.

How heavy a body can you deal with?

We can handle a body of up to 500 pounds [227 kg].

What happens next?

I calculate how long the process will take, based on body weight. The range is from 1½ to 2½ hours.

What exactly is the process?

The water is 180 F [82.2 C] when it comes into the cylinder, and it takes about 40 minutes for the solution to rise to 302 F [150 C] under pressure. Because it’s under pressure — 60 pounds [27 kg] of pressure — it never reaches the boiling point. When it reaches 302 degrees, the heaters shut off and a propeller at the bottom of the tank rotates and agitates the solution. This process is called alkaline hydrolysis.

The body disintegrates?

All except the skeleton. As you know, the majority of human body weight is from water, and in the bio-cremation process, the flesh and organs dissolve into an effluent. A radiator system, like the one in your car, cools down the solution to relieve the pressure after the cycle is done. The solution in the tank passes through a sterilizing cycle, a rinse, and then the effluent goes through two filters before it’s released into the sewage system.

Have there been any issues with the town of Smiths Falls in terms of this effluent going into the sewer system?

None. The process produces a sterile waste. The system kills the potency of any medication that was in the body, as well as other substances such as embalming fluids — about 45 percent of the bodies we have treated have been embalmed — and also any viruses. 

So what’s left in the cylinder?

The entire skeleton is collapsed at the bottom of the tank. It is damp and basically white — the skull is intact and the teeth in it are very clean … and then it’s crushed. The powder is very fine and white — it’s quite different from the larger flaky ashes and small bone fragments that are left after a flame-based cremation.