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‘Flameless cremation’ offers green option for body disposal

Ryan Cattoni funeral director AquaGreen Dispositions LLC where he says he offers first 'flameless cremation' Illinois. The process is actually

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, where he says he offers the first "flameless cremation" in Illinois. The process is actually called alkaline hydrolysis -- "an accelerated form of natural composition". Tuesday, September 25, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:25AM

Inside a windowless room behind a drab South Holland storefront that once housed an auto body shop sits a piece of equipment that looks like it could be part of a super-secret government project.

A giant stainless steel cylinder gleams beneath fluorescent lights. A hatch ringed with steel bolts caps one end of the cylinder. The equipment emits a faint hiss. And there’s an odor in the room — almost medicinal and not unpleasant but hard to identify.

“It’s not a noxious odor, is it?” asks Ryan Cattoni, showing visitors a $200,000 alkaline hydrolysis machine, the centerpiece of his just-opened AquaGreen Dispositions LLC. Cattoni is believed to be the first funeral director in Illinois to offer “flameless cremation,” a process that uses lye, water and heat to dissolve a human body into a coffee-brown liquid and bone fragments in anywhere from five to eight hours. The liquid is then flushed down a drain.

“I’m really passionate about this process,” says Cattoni. “It’s a much gentler cycle on the body — as funny as that may sound.”

Cattoni, who is 23 but could pass for 17, unscrews the hatch to reveal the inside of the “vessel” — empty but for the steel basket that holds the body.

“[The manufacturer] said they can put a 500-pound person in the machine,” Cattoni says.

Cattoni and other supporters of the technology, which is new to the “death care” industry but has been used in some hospitals to dispose of cadavers since the mid-1990s, say alkaline hydrolysis is the greener, eco-friendly way to dispose of human remains. Supporters say the process is like natural decay, only much faster.

“When we do it, there is no [chimney] stack, so it’s all captured in the liquid,” says Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions, the Pittsboro, Ind., company that manufactured Cattoni’s machine. Some people will say it’s throwing Mama down the drain .... The fact of the matter is, when families are offered both options, over 80 percent choose this over flame cremation.”

But is it legal? It is in eight states but might not be in Illinois.

Last year, the state Legislature recognized alkaline hydrolysis as a legitimate means of disposing of a body, but lawmakers haven’t set up rules for the fledgling industry. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees the funeral industry, said this week that “alkaline hydrolysis is not yet permitted” in the state.

“This is going to sound bad, but she should re-read the law,” Cattoni says. “Right now, I’ve gotten licenses and I’ve told everyone exactly what I’m doing. It is legal.”

Cattoni says he has had two clients already and insists what he’s doing is dignified and respectful. He’s dressed in a black suit when he greets visitors in his front office, where a brochure encourages potential clients to “Think Outside The Casket!”

A faux marble urn, included in the $2,199 price for the service, sits on a shelf along with Cattoni’s funeral director’s license.

An unmarked door leads into the cinder block chamber, where, if they wish, clients may watch their loved one being loaded into the machine. Besides the machine itself, there’s a fake potted plant and an IKEA photograph of sunbeams streaming through the branches of a tree. There’s also a plastic recycling bin; it’s for pacemakers, dental fillings, joint replacement parts and other things that don’t dissolve, Cattoni says.

“The biggest problem is that people are misinformed ... about the process; they don’t know exactly how it works,” Cattoni says.

The body is submerged in a solution that’s about 95 percent water and 5 percent chemicals, including lye, a key ingredient in drain cleaner. The lye helps break down the body, and the heat — up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit — speeds up the reaction.

“At room temperature, this would probably take six weeks,” Wilson says.

When it’s all finished, the liquid remains slosh down a rubber pipe and into a drain in the floor — on its way to the nearest water-treatment plant.

The bone remains are then pulverized and put in an urn.

While Cattoni is giving the tour, his mother, Debbie Cattoni, hovers nearby to offer occasional clarifications and tidbits about “the process.”

Cattoni is the first member of his family to enter the funeral business.

“We’re very proud of him,” Debbie Cattoni says, beaming. “He wants to make sure he does things the right way, the respectful way. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind. It’s being able to offer a more green, environmentally friendly option.”

Contributing: AP

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