This article is an edited version of a video, first appearing on the Ask a Mortician YouTube channel as “Weaponizing Fear Against Green Death.”
In 2015 Representative Dick Hamm and his fellow legislators were debating whether or not to legalize aquamation in the state of Indiana.
Aquamation, aka alkaline hydrolysis, is often referred to as water cremation. The process dissolves the dead body with a final bath (aqua), as opposed to a final flame (cre, or fire). The body is placed in a mix of high heat water and potassium hydroxide, pressure is applied, and the body decomposes down to its chemical components, essentially dissolving into the water. The aquamation process uses just one-quarter of the energy of a flame cremation and has no emissions like carbon dioxide and mercury vapor from dental fillings.
Whether you choose water cremation or fire cremation, your corpse will end the process as a container of crushed bones, which your family can take home, scatter, or bury.
As Representative Hamm and his colleagues were debating the Indiana aquamation bill, the process itself had already been established and well-tested at medical schools like the Mayo Clinic and UCLA, and was already a legal option for final disposition in ten other states. The bill had already passed through the House’s Public Health Committee and was heading toward legalization.
That is, until Dick Hamm took the floor.
“A country is… great…. when it takes care of its dead” Hamm began his testimony. “We keep going backwards and backwards and backwards taking care of the people we’re supposed to love. And you can tell I feel pretty passionate about this. I urge you to vote no on this bill.”
What would cause Representative Hamm to come out so strongly against this deathcare bill? Perhaps you’re thinking, “it’s those partisan American politics!” But both Hamm and the lawmaker who introduced the aquamation bill were Republicans. Before Hamm’s impassioned speech, that Republican sponsor of the bill believed it would have no trouble getting the votes to pass the full House.
Hamm’s testimony continued, “We’re going to put [the bodies] in acid, and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever.”
There is a lot to unpack in that statement. As mentioned, aquamation uses high heat water and alkali to rapidly decompose the dead body. Acid would be the wrong pH for this job. Local funeral directors aren’t stuffing people into barrels of acid like mob bosses.
As for Hamm’s “dissolving bodies down the drain” claim, he’s referring to the small amount of neutralized and sterilized amino acids, peptides, and salts that may go down the drain, or be donated to local farms. This is no different than the blood, bile, and intestinal fluid that’s also sent down the drain during an embalming procedure.
Next, Representative Hamm started coming after flame cremation, saying, “when you cremate somebody, 20 percent of that body does not cremate. It has to be crushed, sometimes beat up with a hammer.”
Cremation leaves behind six to eight pounds of inorganic bone fragments. These bone fragments are pulverized by a machine called a cremulator into uniform, scatterable ashes.
Representative Hamm’s speech took what was an uncontentious, Republican-proposed bill, and ended its progress, resulting in a final vote of 34-59 against legalizing aquamation. Why did this happen?
It may help to know that in addition to being a Representative in the state of Indiana, Dick Hamm also owns two casket companies. And he served as the president of the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America, which, obviously, represents the interests of casket companies. It’s clear that Dick Hamm stood to lose the most financially from the passage of a bill legalizing aquamation.
If a family chooses aquamation over a more conventional burial, the family would no longer be required to purchase thousands, (often tens of thousands), of dollars of funeral products like caskets, vaults, and headstones. Given those very same caskets are made by Hamm, perhaps he should have recused himself from voting on the aquamation bill. Hamm not only DIDN’T recuse himself, but instead gave a speech on the House floor that wildly mischaracterized the process.
In 2018, Representative Dick “Never Apologize” Hamm, three-time incumbent, was voted out in his Republican primary. His challenger received more than double his vote total. But the damage was already done, and aquamation remains illegal in the state of Indiana.
When an aquamation bill was brought up in California in 2017, we were well aware of the Hamm-effect. A legalization bill had already failed once, back in 2010.
This new bill was introduced by Assemblyman Todd Gloria who represented San Diego, the location of a new water cremation manufacturer, Qico. Qico was founded by two colleagues of mine, who realized it would have to be all hands on deck to get the bill passed this time around. The bill was voted through various committees without much fanfare, then it stalled in the Appropriations Committee, where bills get funded.
The Order of the Good Death loves this type of challenge. We researched all the lawmakers involved, how to best reach them, and then, armed with this knowledge we launched a campaign asking you – the green death avengers – to write letters and reach out to assembly members on social media. The head of the committee was Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who, in her guide for online advocates and campaigns, requested the use of cute animal photos and .gifs. Yes, really.
So, we decided to shower this powerful woman, keeper of the Royal Californian coin, with all the adorable animal gifs she could handle.
Here’s a tweet from our executive director Sarah Chavez
Hundreds of you went to work, and that very night Assemblywoman Sanchez tweeted #INeedWine. Why? Among other issues, “I HAVE MORTICIANS TWEETING AT ME.” My heart sank. The Assemblywoman had said she wanted all those cat .gifs! If only there was some way to speak to her directly. Wait, were her direct messages open on Twitter?
I slid into her dm’s, introduced myself, and explained that I owned a small funeral home in Los Angeles and that Californians really deserved this environmentally friendly option. I explained we were passionate–not creepy– folks who were happy to answer any questions to get this bill passed. Not only did the Assemblywoman reply, she replied fast. “I’m sorry if it sounded negative… you all are doing an exceptional job of blowing up my personal Twitter feed.”
Assemblywoman Sanchez admitted the aquamation process was actually “one of the most interesting things I have coming in front of me” and was “impressed by the reach and breadth of folks tweeting me.” She was extremely professional and thanked us for challenging her view of who works in death and who cares about this legislation.
A few days later the bill passed through the appropriations committee, went to the Governor, and now aquamation is legal in the state of California. I’m not saying it was all your cat .gifs, but they sure didn’t hurt.
Depending how you view this situation, it can either be a dystopian tale of lobbying in the 21st century or a heartwarming tale of access and advocacy. For the last century, lobbying has come from the funeral industry– controlled by money, lobbyists, and men like Representative Dick Hamm. But now, the lobbying can also come, quite forcefully, from normal fans of dissolving their bodies with water just like you and me.