Aquamation-Graveyard talk

Gravestones in churchyard
Photo: Mike Birdy (Pexels)

Watching sparks fly in the night around a scout camp fire, we often burst into song. One of our favorites was the graveyard song, called the hearse song in other versions. One of the stanzas goes:

  • The worms crawled in and the worms crawled out
  • They crawled in thin and crawled out fat
  • Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out.
  • Your brains come tumbling down your snout.
  • Ooh__________ Ahh__________, etc.

In those days, most British funerals were burials in a churchyard. The ceremony, funereal dress and manners gave us the creeps even before we imagined decay in the coffin. There were hundreds of ancient monuments in our parish graveyard, each marking a place where flesh and bones turned to dust since medieval times.

There was nothing cheerful there and plenty to feed our ghoulish imagination. On our way home from scout meetings, we often detoured to dare the youngest recruit to dash through the yard on his own in the dark. The white face back at the gate and breathing hard should have made us feel guilty of hazing, but all went home happy after treating the victim to fish and chips.

We heard Roman Catholics refused to be cremated and thought the funeral pyres India a weird Oriental practice. But no more. Cremation is now the norm in many Western countries. The ceremony, if you can call it that, has a clinical atmosphere, but the ashes are more practical for the family who may not be around to care for a burial plot. It seems progressive, except for the pollution from crematoria and huge amounts of wood needed for Hindu pyres.

When you reach a certain age and no longer ignoring longevity, you leave instructions for your body in a will, which forces consideration of the options. While cremation is still king, environmental concerns lead some to choose ‘green burials’ or even burial at sea. Last week, I read that Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose aquamation. I had to Google a word I should I have known because I was a boy aquamater.

As a naturalist-undertaker, I brought home dead rabbits, voles, snakes, etc. to my mortuary in the shed to immerse in concentrated sodium hydroxide. In a few days, the soft tissues dissolved for flushing down the drain. The washed and dried bones were allowed indoors where I tried to articulate skeletons with wires.

This is the same process of aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis to be scientific. It is regulated by law in North Carolina, though not yet in Virginia. I don’t regard the disposal of dissolved tissue as any more disrespectful than letting it rot or burn. The crushed bones can be kept in an urn, as are those of the archbishop, said to be placed in an honored place behind the pulpit of his cathedral. With minimal pollution and costing less than alternatives, it seems a way to go.

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

1 comment

  1. Well, there is another option I knew nothing about. If it is good enough for Archbishop Tutu it should be good enough for me. It does sound kind of ghoulish. Who is the lucky to do the dunking?

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