A St. Louis man is bringing aqua cremation to Missouri's first crematory
On a frigid January day, there was unusual activity at a long-dormant red brick building on Sublette Avenue in St. Louis.
Jon Hughes, a funeral home operator, watched a team of professional movers in coveralls as they maneuvered a one-ton steel tank off a flatbed truck and prepared to transfer it into the century-old building. Built in the 1880s and shuttered in the 1990s, the Missouri Crematory was coming alive again, so to speak.
“We're really, if anything, just proud to take a building that was just sitting for literally the past two decades empty and bring it back to life,” Hughes said.
Moving the tank was a key part of transforming the historical building from a traditional, mothballed crematory into a facility that offers alkaline hydrolysis, commonly known as aqua or water cremation. The Hughes Funeral Alternatives website refers to the process as aquamation.
Hughes paid about $90,000 for the tank, which is designed to hold a body while a heated solution of 95% water and 5% sodium hydroxide passes over and around it for about eight hours.
“We're using alkalinity. Just as the soil would break down the body naturally, this machine with natural water in the same natural alkali mimics that same process,” Hughes said.
Hughes and other funeral directors offer alkaline hydrolysis as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation, which involves a furnace and leaves behind ashes or “cremains.”
From a business perspective, water cremation is a smart choice, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Crematory Association of North America.
“Flame crematories have emissions that come out of those stacks,” she said. “It is very difficult for some businesses to get permission to place new crematories, particularly in urban areas. It's much easier to get zoning permission to put in an alkaline hydrolysis facility.”
“We have no carbon output, we have no smoke, we have no gas output that comes off from our machine,“ Hughes said.
Alkaline hydrolysis has a different outcome than traditional cremation, one that Kemmis acknowledged makes some people squeamish.
“What remains when the water drains from the chamber and you pull out the tray is a skeleton,” she said. “I mean it’s pure white.”
Because the bones are waterlogged, they have to be dried out. Then, they are pulverized so that families can have the remains in a container, scatter them, or even have them made into keepsake jewelry.
“It’s not for everybody,” Hughes said.
When the Missouri Crematory was built in the 1880s, cremation was a new phenomenon in the U.S., said Amanda Clark of the Missouri Historical Society. The first cremation in the country took place in 1876. Soon after, a man named Alan Todd decided to erect a crematory in St. Louis. It would be only the fifth one built in the country and the first west of the Mississippi.
Todd died before the building was ready to perform cremations, Clark said, so his daughter Elizabeth was the first person to be cremated there.
“The whole thing was like dropping that veil and making cremation less scary and less strange,” Clark said. “So I like to think that she had a part to play in wanting people to understand the full process of what happens when you're cremated.”
The crematory was the object of fascination in St Louis.
“The local newspapers, not only did they cover it, they covered it in detail with diagrams, and you can tell it's very intentional,” Clark said.
It took nearly a century for cremation to catch on around the country. By the early 1970s, cremation was the choice for handling a person’s remains of about 5% of the population, according to the crematory association. With a steady growth, that rate jumped to about 50% by 2016.
About 60% of those in the U.S. who choose cremation choose the traditional method. As of 2023, the water cremation process was legal in 20 states but practiced only in 14, including Missouri and Illinois. Hughes said he’s served families from as far away as Texas and Florida out of his existing location on South Grand Boulevard.
A traditional cremation in Missouri or Illinois can cost less than $1,000. Hughes charges about $1,450 for water cremation, but many funeral homes have higher prices — as much as $2,000.
Funeral homes began to offer aqua cremation in the late 2000s, but it accounts for "only a fraction of a percent" of cremations in the U.S., Kemmis said. Still, she predicted the option will grow in popularity.
“One thing we know about Americans is, we love choice,” she said. “And we want for the values that we embraced in life, to reflect in our death as well. To personalize those memorial services and other ways that our family and friends and loved ones remember us.”
Hughes started offering aqua cremation in 2017 at his South Grand location and said more customers are opting for the new method.
“We’re getting busier every year,” he said. “More families are finding out about this.”
Open for business
On moving day at the Missouri Crematory, the professional crew wrapped the alkaline hydrolysis tank in straps. Then, a forklift operator raised the tank high off the ground and swooped it down to the basement-level door. That’s when the movers realized the tank would not make it past an old fence blocking the way.
Hughes was all business.
“Whatever you have to do,” he said, giving permission to cut the obstruction in half. As the movers swung the tank through the door, Hughes’ face registered relief and panic depending on how easily the job of moving the equipment, the price of a new luxury car, seemed to be proceeding.
Hughes said it took more than a year to plan the tank's installation. Before its arrival, there were renovations to the old building, including adding new accessible restrooms and updating electrical systems to power the alkaline hydrolysis process.
The old Missouri Crematory has already started to offer alkaline hydrolysis. Hughes Funeral Alternatives will continue to offer embalming and traditional cremation. When asked about the prospects for success with a new, largely unknown method, Hughes expressed patience.
“When something new like this comes along people, and rightfully so, want to know about it,” Hughes said. “We have an open door policy. Anything you want to know, I will tell you. We're here if a family needs this. If they're comfortable with it, we're honored to serve them. But if not, then that's fine, too.”
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