'We must remember humans are body and soul': 'Boil in the bag' funeral language is 'awful', top Anglican layperson says

3 July 2023, 16:05 | Updated: 4 July 2023, 07:22

'Boil in the bag' funeral language is 'awful' says Dr Ros Clarke
'Boil in the bag' funeral language is 'awful' says Dr Ros Clarke. Picture: Handout/Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

The language of 'boil in the bag' funerals is "awful", a member of the Church of England's lawmaking body has said.

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News emerged over the weekend that a more environmentally-friendly alternative to cremation, in which a dead body is dissolved in 160C water treated with an alkali, is likely to become legal in the UK later this year.

The Co-Op Funeralcare, the UK's largest funeral provider, is set to start offering the service, called resomation.

Aquatorium, a company that builds the equipment that dissolves the deceased, leads with an environmental pitch - using the marketing slogan, "why would your last act on earth be to pollute it?" on its website.

Dr Ros Clarke, the associate director of Church Society, an evangelical Church of England charity, told LBC that she had no particular issue with the process itself - but objected to the idea that the body was separate from the person.

Dr Ros Clarke
Dr Ros Clarke. Picture: Handout

Dr Clarke, who is also a lay member of the Church of England's General Synod, said Aquatorium's green-focused slogan suggested a "very low view of what a body is and why it matters."

She said: "I don't have a moral objection to this method [of disposing of a dead body] but my concern is that the way in which that’s done is still treating the body as a human body - not just a collection of cells."

Dr Clarke, who wrote a book called Human about the Christian idea that people are made in God's image, said that for members of her religion, humans are "body and soul", rather than just "matter".

She added that the 'boil in the bag' language that has been used in the media, following the example of the BBC series Years and Years, is "awful".

Resomation is set to be offered in the UK from this year
Resomation is set to be offered in the UK from this year. Picture: Getty

"Reducing a person to a thing is completely inappropriate," Dr Clarke said.

Resomation - also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis - consists of the dead body being enclosed in a biodegradable pouch, then placed in a container filled with pressurised water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide.

This quickly converts tissue and cells into a watery solution of micromolecules, with one cycle taking approximately four hours.

Soft bones remain and these are dried then reduced to a white powder, which can then be returned to relatives in an urn.

Resomation is a more sustainable option as it does not release toxic gases, air pollutants or polluting fluids.

Resomation could be introduced to the UK later this year
Resomation could be introduced to the UK later this year. Picture: Alamy

Cremating a body leads to the release of carbon dioxide and potentially toxic gases while burials can lead to the risk of groundwater contamination.

The Co-op, which arranges more than 93,000 funerals every year, said it will be working with sustainability experts and academia to further validate existing research during its initial regional pilot.

It said pilot locations to be announced later this year with the intention to expand the service to all Co-op clients.

The practice is growing in popularity in the majority of US states, Canada and South Africa, but burials or gas cremations remain the two options for UK families.

Anti apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in 2021, is the most high-profile figure to choose resomation for his own funeral.

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the most high-profile figure to choose resomation for his own funeral
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the most high-profile figure to choose resomation for his own funeral. Picture: Alamy

Its introduction in the UK will mark the first time in more than 120 years that a new alternative to burial or cremation will be widely available for funerals since the introduction of the Cremation Act in 1902.

A YouGov poll commissioned by Co-op Funeralcare found that 89% of UK adults had not heard of resomation but once explained, almost a third said they would choose it for their own funeral if available.

Furthermore, nearly a fifth of adults who have arranged a funeral in the last five years said they would have considered resomation for their loved one's funeral had it been an option at the time.

Professor Douglas Davies, an anthropologist, theologian and death rites expert at Durham University, said: "The rise in ecological and sustainability concerns over the past decade combined with a desire to be part of nature or laid to rest in a natural setting, means more people are considering the environmental impact of their body once they die.

"The reduced carbon footprint that may come with Resomation compared with other forms of body disposal, means it will no doubt be of interest to many people as the practise is increasingly made available in the UK.

The Co-op funeralcare is set to start offering the service
The Co-op funeralcare is set to start offering the service. Picture: Alamy

Gill Stewart, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare said introducing "innovative and sustainable options" for clients is "an absolute priority".

"Up until now choice has been limited to burial or cremation," she said.

"We've seen from the rapid uptake of newer funeral options such as direct cremation, that when choice in the funeral market is broadened, this is only a positive thing both for the bereaved and for those planning ahead for their own farewell."

Julian Atkinson, director of resomation service Kindly Earth, added: "Throughout the 30 years I have been involved in the funeral industry, I have always been passionate about people having access to more sustainable end of life arrangements, and we are encouraged to see that many members of the public are conscious of reducing the carbon footprint, even after death."

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