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Inventors of water cremation machine say B.C. laws could push them out

The 'Aqualyser' offers eco-friendly water cremation as an alternative to flames. However, the use of such a machine on human bodies has not been authorized in B.C.

On a sunny Friday, Theo Nguyen and Stan Hussey unlatch the doors of a shipping container in a lot behind their Burnaby, B.C., workshop. Outside, spools of fibre optic cable line a fence. Inside, a slight smell of ammonia hangs in the air. 

Nguyen presses a button and several water pumps come on with a whoosh. Bubbling water feeds into what looks like an extra long chest freezer. But unlike a freezer, this machine is filled with water fitted with several heating elements that raise its temperature above 100 degrees Celsius.

When mixed with potassium hydroxide (a major ingredient in soap), the solution can completely dissolve the tissue of a human body in four to eight hours. Often described as water cremation, the alkaline hydrolysis process is closer to an accelerated water burial; the tissue decomposes as if it were buried in the earth, only faster. 

The remaining effluent comes out as pure sterilized nutrients, and after its pH is lowered with citric acid, it can be drained directly into the wastewater system. Leftover and chemically altered bones come out so brittle they break apart in your hand and can be kept in an urn, scattered into the ocean or added to soil as fertilizer.

The remains of their most recent test — 16 hog heads — are laid out next to the machine on a metal stretcher hooked up to an overhead winch.

“It comes out pure white,” says Hussey, crushing a piece of hog skull in his hand. “It’s like bone meal you put in your garden.” 

Stan Hussey holds the remains of hog heads during a recent test at his Burnaby workshop. The water cremation machine has been dubbed the 'Aqualyser.' Stefan Labbé

From animal remains to humans

Since the 1970s, Hussey’s company, Habourview Electric Ltd., has provided electric control panels for a number of industries: from forestry, mining and buildings to roller coasters and wastewater systems around the world.

An engineer at the company, Nguyen traces his first thoughts of the water cremation machine shortly after his family got a cat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Always looking far ahead, he thought to himself, what do we do with this animal once it’s dead? 

Initially planned as a machine to keep him and his wife busy in retirement, the plan took a turn one night at his local Toastmasters Club in North Vancouver. He remembers speaking to fellow member Guy Heywood, a financier who had experience in the funeral industry.

Heywood told the engineer that veterinarians controlled access to the pet disposal market — better off building something for people, he said. Heywood ended up joining as one of five partners in the start-up, and helped with a business plan and financing. 

After some tinkering, Nguyen came up with a prototype in 2020, dubbing it the ‘Aqualyser.’ While the few other machines on the market look like cryogenic chambers, Nguyen said theirs doesn’t rely on high pressure. That makes it both safer to use and much less intimidating, he said. 

“We’re scared of death,” Nguyen said. “Once people can see it and touch it, it’s little more than an electric water heater.” 

'A huge positive change,' says funeral home owner

Last year, Nguyen and Hussey began testing the machine on animal remains. So far, those have included pigs, goats, deer and even a black bear found as roadkill near Salmon Arm where the company eventually hopes to ramp up manufacturing at a retrofitted mill. 

The company has yet to pass a human through the Aqualyser, but from a technical point of view, Nguyen says it’s not much different from an animal. 

It’s also expected to be cheaper, and not just for grieving families. Whereas a flame crematory could cost funeral services as much as US$500,000, the Aqualyser is expected to cost less than US$100,000. Hussey, a Coquitlam resident, says that’s half the price of other water cremation machines on the market.

Several funeral homes in the province have already lined up to stock their facility with a water cremation device. Tyrel Burton, owner of Alternatives Funeral Cremation Services, which has several locations around Metro Vancouver, says he is excited to see a local manufacturer push for water cremation, what he describes as a more environmentally friendly alternative. 

He cited data that shows every year, 90 per cent of people who die in B.C. are later cremated by flame. The process, which every year burns about 30,000 bodies at 1,800 degrees Celsius, releases an estimated 10 million kilograms of carbon into the atmosphere. 

“We lead the way with electric cars, for sure, as you can see on the highways, and I think this is just that natural next step to bring this in,” Burton said. 

“And I think it can be a huge positive change, both environmentally and I think just giving people different options, not just burial or [flame] cremation.”

Water cremation is seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to flame cremation. Alanna Kelly

'No anticipated timeline' to lift legal barriers 

One of the biggest hurdles to have water cremation accepted in B.C. is legal. The provincial government has yet to authorize the process, despite laws legalizing alkaline hydrolysis in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and about half of U.S. states. 

In an email, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said any changes to existing laws governing the disposal of human remains has a number of implications, and would require engagement within the provincial government, with municipalities and industry.

The ministry spokesperson said policy work to inform potential future amendments to the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act is ongoing but there is “no anticipated timeline for when amendments would be made.” 

“The funeral industry is asking the government to approve water cremation as another means of disposition,” said Hussey. “It's been hard to get their attention. The funeral industry is frustrated.”

If approved, Hussey says water cremation will benefit family-run funeral homes and the needs of small towns, which he says need to process about 200 bodies a year. But the legal delay worries some B.C. funeral homes that have recently seen a growing crematoria crunch in the province’s urban areas. 

Existing air pollution laws mean it’s nearly impossible to build new flame crematoria in Metro Vancouver. As the region’s population grows, many crematoria can’t keep with demand, and some funeral homes have resorted to shipping human remains to Vancouver Island and Washington State to be cremated. 

“You can’t build any new [crematoria], even through the population is increasing,” said Hussey. 

Owners feel pushed out of B.C. despite anticipated benefits to residents

All the legal wrangling has led Hussey and Nguyen to seek out markets in places like Saskatchewan and Oregon, where water cremation is legal and governments are courting the business to set up shop. 

Neither of them want to move the fledgling start-up and both say they would abandon any thoughts of moving the company — not least because staying would mean they could help upend the way people interact with death for the better.

Offering alternatives in death matters for people like Jesus Rodriguez, the panel shop’s foreman who oversaw much of the plumbing and electrical work for the machine.

An electrician at Harbourview Electrical Ltd. wires a control panel for a roller coaster at a shop in Burnaby, B.C. Stefan Labbé/Glacier Media

​Inside the Burnaby shop, rows of electrical panels over six feet tall line the room. Rodriguez and his colleagues put the final touches on the electrical brains for the “Master Blaster,” a roller coaster in Saudi Arabia. Other control panels will fill water log rides at amusement parks in Turkey or Germany. 

He likes his job, but for Rodriguez, building the water cremation machine hit at something much more personal. 

“I’ve seen flame cremation. I had a child pass away at eight months. I had to push the button,” said Rodriguez. “The thought of fire was hard on the soul. It feels hurtful to me.”

“I think this is a softer way to go.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said calcium phosphate was used in the water cremation reaction. In fact, the main additive is potassium hydroxide, with the leftover 'bone shadows' made up of calcium phosphate.