Image: Courtesy of Ryan Cattoni
The death industry is not an eco-friendly one: It dumps carcinogens into the ground, fells millions of pounds of lumber yearly and releases a smorgasbord of pollutants into the air. People are working to change that, and one such man is Ryan Cattoni, the owner of AquaGreen Dispositions, a so-called “green cremation” company. Green cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, involves dissolving bodies in a solution of water and alkaline, leaving only brittle bones that can be crushed into “ash.”
This process cuts down on pollutants expelled during traditional cremation such as mercury, dioxins and furans and greenhouse gases, according to SevenPonds, an organization that works to help people accept death as a natural occurrence. But because it is relatively new body disposal method, it is only legal in 10 states and available in even less, according to legal guide website Nolo.
AquaGreen Dispositions, which was founded in 2013 and is based in Chicago suburb South Holland, is the first and only company to offer alkaline hydrolysis in Illinois. Fresh out of mortuary school, Cattoni worked with state legislators to legalize green cremation in Illinois so he could become the first in the state to offer it.
Echo spoke to Cattoni about the company and the green cremation process.
What is the appeal of alkaline hydrolysis beyond being eco-friendly?
We thought originally when we started it would be the [eco-friendly] people that would really like this and go for this. However, as we got into the business and stuff went along we found that the majority of people who like this are people that don’t like the idea of fire or their loved one burning—whether it be for religious regions or just is fire is … danger[ous], try to get away from it. Whereas water, we depend on it to live. We shower in it, we relax in it. It’s an easier way to cope with. It’s more the people who don’t like fire in addition to the environmentally friendly people.
How eco-friendly is alkaline hydrolysis?
The carbon footprint is about a tenth of a regular cremation. When I was dealing with Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, they were ecstatic to see I didn’t have any big smokestacks coming out of my ceiling or anything like that. They were very happy with that. There are no air emissions being released, no fossil fuels being burned, so it’s a greener process than regular cremation.
Do you get a lot of out-of-state business?
It’s not legal in states not because there’s any problem in the process, it’s more that there’s no regulation for it and people don’t want just any Joe Schmo doing it. They want permits, regulations, so it’s very regulated. We are dealing with people’s loved ones, so we want to make sure that it’s people at the highest standards doing it, basically. We do get the honor of serving people from all different states, which is a very big honor to us.
Has the business grown?
Our business has tripled since we opened. One of the things with it is that not everybody knows about it, and advertising in the Chicago area is just so expensive that most of our advertisement was word of mouth, just from families we had served before. They tell people. But now since we are growing, we do have an advertising fund. The word is getting out there much more, and it is growing quicker than it did before.
Is green cremation seen as the next step in the death industry?
In 2015, that was the first year that cremation actually surpassed burials nationwide. As time goes on and guidelines on pollution control get tighter, I think that this process is going to surpass cremation, just because … a lot of filters on crematoriums that are going to be very expensive. This is just a much cleaner process, so it’s going to be a little bit better.
A few funeral homes in Illinois offered alkaline hydrolysis. Has that caused competition?
We are the only [alkaline hydrolysis] machine in Illinois, pretty much in the Midwest. If you see people offering it, they use us as a third party, basically. But we do offer our services two ways: Families can go through their funeral home and they outsource the flameless cremation to us, or if a family would like no services—no embalming, no casket, no church services, nothing—the family can go directly through us.