Aquamation with Joslin Roth: Water Cremation Explained

Jocelyn Roth, Co-owner of Resting Waters, Washington’s first aquamation site, explains the growing trend of water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis or aqua cremation) – legalized in California in October 2017. Kelly and Jocelyn discuss this and other “green burial” practices making their way into the mainstream.
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To learn more about aquamation visit Resting Waters

Aquamation Podcast Transcription

Kelly MacLean: It’s the ‘When You Die’ podcast and I’m Kelly MacLean, your host. Joslin, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Joslin Roth: Thank you, Kelly, for having me.

Kelly MacLean: So I wanted to start by asking you if you could tell me what aquamation is?

aquamation

Joslin Roth: I will. So aquamation is known formally as alkaline hydrolysis, and the term aquamation has been adopted by people in the community who use this form of disposition. It has a dozen other names to include, you know, water cremation, hydro cremation, flameless cremation. But essentially what alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation is is the acceleration of what happens naturally in, you know, ground burials. So if you were to have a green funeral and get buried in the ground in a shroud, over the matter of years this would happen naturally. And we just speed the process up in a matter of hours. So our particular system, because we do animals, is very slow at 20 hours. On the human end of that, they have even accelerated it further to be, you know, around six hours depending on if the system is pressurized and the temperatures involved. But I would say six to eight hours is an average rate for a human. Where with the animal side, we all typically run our systems for around 20 hours.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. And when you say that it’s essentially the same thing that happens in green burials, what kind of … Chemically is breaking down the body?

Joslin Roth: So in our system we use alkali, we use potassium hydroxide, and sodium hydroxide, which are the things that are used to make things like soap. So, you know, they are chemicals, but they are chemicals that are readily used every day in the products that we are all using all the time. But, you know, we use hot water and the alkali, and the water itself is in constant movement and that is a key component to how our system works. How it works in the ground is a little bit different just because, you know, it’s using bacteria and time where we are accelerating it using added alkali.

Kelly MacLean: Got it. And so pet aquamation is … Well, actually, can you tell us the story of how you came to start this, where the inspiration came from, and a little bit about Resting Waters?

Joslin Roth: Yeah. So the story is actually slightly dark. My husband, who is an attorney, had been in the middle of trial and he was working hours a day that just didn’t make sense in my head, how a human body was going to be able to tolerate that for an extended period of time. And I got in this really dark place where I was terrified that I was going to be a widow at a young age with a young child. And I had been a support spouse for quite a few years, so I had been out of the work force and looking for my niche, like what I wanted, and what I needed. And in that exact moment I happened to be scouring the Internet and found an article about AH, or aquamation, being used for pets in California. And I had this like light bulb moment where I just said, “Hold up. Why isn’t this in Seattle? We are one of the greenest communities in the nation, and we tout ourselves as being so. We’re also incredibly death positive here in Seattle, so a lot of the death positive movement is coming out of this region anyway. Why is this not here?” And I sent a quick email to my spouse and said, “I want to do this.” And he replied back, “Let’s do it.” Like, “Figure it out.” And so-

Kelly MacLean: Good spouse.

Joslin Roth: I’m sorry?

Kelly MacLean: I said, “Good spouse.”

dog pet

Joslin Roth: Good spouse. Yes. Absolutely. He was just like, “You do you. You go figure this out.” And I will say that he is an amazing partner in that sense. I’ve never once had him say to me, “You can’t do that.” He is always right on board with all of my crazy ideas. But he knew I would figure it out. And I did. I went out and I started doing research and I tried to find anything I could find on aquamation and, you know, the application of it for pets specifically. The reason that spoke to me was first off, we are pet owners, and I knew what that looked like …

What death care looked like in our region. And essentially it’s that you trust your vet to make the choice for you, and you hand over your animal, and then they arrange for the disposition. And that felt sad to me, and not how I wanted to honor my own family members. And so, you know, I just kept researching. And eventually we really started to build to open our doors, but that process took two full years because we were the first in Seattle to do it, which meant we had to go to the zoning office and figure out where we could be zoned. We had to figure out what permitting they would require of us, what licenses we would need. So it was a long two year work, work, work process to just open our doors. And we actually owned our equipment for probably a year and a half of those two years-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: And it was sitting in a warehouse in Indiana, just waiting for us to actually be able to take possession of it.

Kelly MacLean: Amazing. It’s such a big thing to take on. And legally speaking, was aquamation for pets legal when you started?

Joslin Roth: So it was-

Kelly MacLean: [inaudible 00:06:16] Okay.

Joslin Roth: Right. Aquamation has been legal for pets in all 50 states for, you know, a matter of years. Because we are pet guardians and pets are still considered possessions, they’re not … They don’t have autonomy. It is easier to change laws surrounding animals than it is humans. So where each state right now is deciding if they’re going to take on the AH fight, if they’re going to try to bring alkaline hydrolysis in, and that takes an incredible amount of legislation and it takes money.

It was different with animals. So to make AH legal in all 50 states took, you know, no time at all, and it may have actually … If you look at our RCW in Washington state, the list of options for pets is really wide. So it includes composting and even things like refuge. So you can just actually use your garbage can if you want to. So it’s a different beast, if you will, you know? It’s-

Kelly MacLean: Right. Well at the death salon Caitlin Doughty gave a great presentation on pet death-

Joslin Roth: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: And she spoke about how we shouldn’t wish that our … You know, we shouldn’t wonder if our pet deaths and burials are too human, but rather we should hope that our own deaths can be more like pet deaths.

Joslin Roth: Right.

Kelly MacLean: Not the death itself but, you know-

Joslin Roth: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: The [inaudible 00:07:53] follows, because there are a lot more options, and most people don’t know, but legally speaking it’s quite limited what you can do with a human body. And you don’t actually have that many options beyond burial, you know, traditional burial, and cremation, and now green burial.

Joslin Roth: Correct. Yeah. It’s unfortunate that we have to fight so hard to have options that, you know, are afforded to our furry companions or scaly ones, but it’s a fight worth fighting. I think that there are some really amazing people doing things out in the community that sooner than later are going to make real change for what is available to humans and the death care world.

Kelly MacLean: Can you say something about California, which is the … I believe it’s the first state to legalize aquamation for humans. Is that right? Do you know?

Joslin Roth: It is not the first state. And so … I think it’s actually maybe number 14, at this point.

Kelly MacLean: Oh, okay.

Joslin Roth: It has been in Oregon State for at least as long as we’ve been trying to open Resting Waters. So it was one of the things we looked into, trying to search where it was available. We found a human facility in Oregon State while we were trying to open resting waters. So … And then, you know, it’s actually been used for the medical community for a very long time. So Duke University uses it. The Mayo Clinic uses it. There’s a list-

Kelly MacLean: For, you know, like … For bodies donated for science?

Joslin Roth: It is. Yeah. So they do it for their cadavers and they, you know … It’s part of their willed body programs. When they give back families ashes often times it’s actually through aquamation that’s done on site.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. So you actually do get ashes back from aquamation and you can have that to scatter just as you would cremation?

Joslin Roth: Right. So we do use the term ashes.

[00:10:00]

Caitlin would tell you that’s a big, “No, no.” Really we’re supposed to call them remains, which is better for what we do. Just because I think Hollywood has given people this funny sense of ashes, and people think that in a [inaudible 00:10:14], where a body goes in and a pile of ash comes out, which just is not the case. A body goes in and a skeleton comes out-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: Or at least bits of a skeleton come out. You know, often times the bones are no long whole or partially whole. But we use the same equipment that the flame based community uses. It’s called a cremulator, which is probably one of the worst terms I’ve ever heard. Ever.

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: And that is used to process the skeletal remains into the take home remains, which really is a fine powder that is created from the hard tissue bone left over from the process … Of either process. So out of our equipment comes skeletal remains and out of a retort comes skeletal remains.

Kelly MacLean: Now would those be a kind of bone colored powder when you get them back?

Joslin Roth: So our colors in the pet world range from bright white to sometimes a pale green, and we’ve even had a little kitty that came out almost like a sky blue color-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: And I have not figured out what does this. It’s always a mystery when we open our equipment, you know, we’re always surprised to see what color are the bones this time. And then as they dry they always lighten. But we’ve opened our equipment to find almost black bones, which was a little bit frightening-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: But then they did lighten and then once they were cremulated they were a very light grey color. In the human world of alkaline hydrolysis it is really common that the bones are just white. Just a beautiful bright white, and there are different-

Kelly MacLean: That’s kind of more charming than the color of, you know, ashes in a fire.

Joslin Roth: It is. The other thing is I will say is our remains … They take on this like [inaudible 00:12:21] feeling so they feel like baby powder-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: They’re very fine. Where … Like we have comparisons so we can show people these are ashes from flame based cremation of our family pet from before we were open, and then we have a vile of ash from my cat that was aquamated when we first opened our doors. So she just happened to pass the same year that we started. So … And her ashes are this beautiful bright white fine, fine, fine powder. And then our dog, Sailor, who was cremated, you know, seven years ago, is more like sand. So more, you know, like that salty, you know, not fine. Very sand like, very much like you just went to the beach.

Kelly MacLean: Oh, wow. That’s pretty amazing that it always comes out different. And what are the benefits of aquamation versus cremation? Because it’s what … Something over 50% in the United States of people are cremated, and that’s only increasing. Is it?

Joslin Roth: It is.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah.

Joslin Roth: Right. So Seattle actually has a rate of 95% cremation.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. Amazing.

Joslin Roth: Which is why I think we really have to adopt aquamation as a second option. We use an incredible amount of energy to cremate a body. And, you know, the temperatures are 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. That is an exceptionally hot furnace and it uses a lot of natural resources. Where our process, our exact system, we use less water than a family of four does in a day, by quite a bit. And we use 5% of the energy that it would take for flame based cremation. And those numbers are actually not accurate when it comes to our system because they’re based on the human system, which is doing one body at a time. Our system is doing as many as 14. So if you were really able to do the math, we would have-

Kelly MacLean: Which I’m not.

Joslin Roth: I’m not either. Yeah. I tell people all the time, “I’m not a scientist, and I wish I was.” I wish I understood the body structure better. There are so many things that now that I do death care, I’m fascinated, and I want to know so much more. I’m constantly seeking out information, just trying to be a better provider, and wrap my mind around the amazing science that happens every day, you know, in my body care facility.

[00:15:00]

But … Yeah … So we use even better numbers than the human industry, and, you know, the human industry touts 5% energy usage compared to flame based cremation.

Kelly MacLean: That’s awesome. And also in terms of the pollution factor, cremation is much worse for the environment. Correct?

Joslin Roth: It is. So, you know, there are green house gases and things like amalgam phalines, you know, those are adding mercury into the air. There are all these EPA regulations when it comes to flame based cremation. So although some of them are located within city limits, they have restrictions on how many of them can be in an area and what that area looks like. So our facility is smack dab in the middle of residential. We just happened to find a commercial building that was in the middle of a neighborhood. So we created this, you know, beautiful memorial space, but it’s right within the heart of a community. People walk their dog’s everyday past us, and we’re just right there in the heart of what’s going on in our own little small community here in West Seattle. Where that looks a little bit different for flame based cremation, typically. I mean they can get the option to be in a community like ours but it’s limited in a way that’s not, you know, as limited when it comes to aquamation.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. And what has the response been from people who come to have their pet aquamated?

water cremation

Joslin Roth: Yeah. So I would say that the people who find us organically, more often than not, immediately get us, immediately get what we’re doing, immediately see the benefit. It looks a little bit different in a veterinarian setting where people are suddenly stricken with grief, and now they have to make a choice between flame based cremation or water based cremation. That unknown factor, that I don’t have the energy to ask questions that I need to ask, makes it difficult, in our community at least, from what we’ve seen, for people to go, “Oh, yeah. Okay. I want the water cremation.” We still do get people who choose us in a veterinarian setting, but we’ve found that when people find us organically, and then they have a conversation with us, and they get to ask just a couple simple questions … One of the biggest questions is about remains. Nobody wants a jar of water back.

Kelly MacLean: Of course.

Joslin Roth: So if you can’t wrap your mind around the fact that there is going to be remains that are not water, then you’re not necessarily going to choose water based cremation.

Kelly MacLean: Right. Well … And it’s just such a new idea. I had no idea until I met you guys in Seattle, and saw your wonderful presentation, that that was even an option or a thing. It really … You know, I think for a lot of us it’s traditional burial, in a casket or cremation, and those are, you know, point blank the only options. But right now there are a lot of exciting alternatives that are becoming more available or look likely to become more available, such as re-composting.

Joslin Roth: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Oh, yes, which is fascinating. The concept of like … What a game changer. I really hope that Katrina can just keep forging her way forward and making it a possibility.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. She’s someone I’d love to have on as well. She’s incredible. And it seems like our … Legally speaking, we’re moving toward a lot more options for humans as well. Is that your understanding?

Joslin Roth: You know, a lot of communities that are moving forward with trying to bring aquamation in for human use, they’re also trying to change the laws so that it reads even more progressive than that, so that it would make a path to re-composting and things like that a little bit easier. So people are tying to build it in so that it’s not just … We’re changing the law to read that it can be burial, green burial, cremation, water cremation, but even taking it a step further so that it would help people like Katrina bring even more progressive options to death care for humans in the future.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Can you say something about the whole death positive movement on the heels of that great death salon that we were at?

[00:20:00]

Joslin Roth: Oh, I can. You know, I found the death positive movement years before I found aquamation, and I think by nature I was already death positive. My Grandmother, who comes from a really small town in Ohio, is probably one of the most death positive women I’ve ever met, and I don’t think she knows she is. So when my Grandfather passed, he passed at home, and my Grandmother curled up next to him and kissed him and held him for hours before she let them take his body away. And I think she would have kept him much longer had relatives that were present not stepped in and made her feel uncomfortable about how she felt.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Joslin Roth: But I … You know, I worked for hospice as an 18 year old and I actually lived in California in the middle of the desert, and really knew no one and had no one around me. But I found this community, which I was the youngest person there going through hospice training, and I was so surprisingly comfortable with the idea that the people that I would go and spend hours with were going to be people that were going to die, and at 18 that didn’t scare me. I felt really calm and safe in that space and it was something I felt really passionate about.

And I think we need to have conversations with each other, and in our house we have them all the time, to the point where that … We were going to Europe and my son, who is now ten, at the time he was nine, and he has his own life insurance policy, and in my opinion it is his policy and that money should go to whoever he wants it to go to. So we were updating our wills and I looked at my son and I said, “So if Mom and Dad and you were to all die together, who do you want your money to go to?” And he rolls his eyes and he was like, “Oh, Mom. Do we always have to talk about death?” So I said, “Well, it’s an important question. We’re going on a big vacation. We’re just trying to wrap a couple of things up. You know? What would your wishes be?” So he told me, “Well, I would want them to go to my baby cousin Bjorn.” And so, you know, I contacted our financial advisor and said, “Okay. Carson wants this to happen. How do we make it so? It’s a little bit complicated because he wants to leave the money to a minor. There has to be a trust set up.”

But it is just if you can find comfort in the fact that we’re not escaping death, we’re all going to go through it. But if we can bring each person a beautiful ending, not only are we going to grieve better, but they’re going to die better. It’s just going to be a better experience for everyone in the room, for everybody involved and, you know, I … Mortality sucks. There’s no getting around that. Grief is awful. I see it every day. I cry with families almost daily. So-

Kelly MacLean: Wow.

Joslin Roth: So we as a society need to just start to say, “Okay.” You know? And the sad thing is that death was an active part of society for a very long time. It went away, and so it’s not that the death movement is progressive. It’s regressive. We’re kind of saying this modern life that we’re living isn’t doing anyone any favors, right? If we’re not willing to take care of the people around us, and to love on them at then end, what do we really have to show for … I mean these are the people who raise us up, right? They’re the people who are most involved in our lives, but we’re afraid to touch them once they’ve died, and that’s a little bit different in the pet death world.

So our families are actually way more likely to lay in state, where they keep their pet at home for days and they have people come say goodbye. A home wake is actually pretty common in our world. And it may be that those people are finding us because our vision aligns with theirs. But if you think about the fraction of the people in our community that actually do find Resting Waters, the number out there must be just significantly larger than the families we even get to serve. And these people are just by nature choosing to do things like lay in state, where they’re honoring their animals for days at a time. So, you know, we really do have this incredible opportunity as pet guardians to do some exceptional things that people don’t think about doing with their human loved ones and, you know, hopefully that will change.

[00:25:00]

I’ve watched, you know, grown men cradle small dogs in their arms and, you know … And I think that people are less likely to do that with Grandma.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. It’s like pet deaths are good training for us for human deaths, too.

Joslin Roth: They are. Yeah. Actually … And if you think about when it comes to children, often times a pet death is their first experience.

Kelly MacLean: Absolutely.

Joslin Roth: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Kelly MacLean: It’s the first time to really … That a lot of people really, hopefully, have that conversation with their kid.

Joslin Roth: Right. Yeah. And again, my son has a different experience because his Mom’s in the industry. So, you know, he comes and he actually helps with body care, he helps do paw prints, we pet everyone, and love on them, and so there’s a lot of just … We kind of joke, “If people could watch our video tape, they’d probably think, ‘What are these women up to?’” You know? We’re brushing them out, and talking to them, and everyone gets treated like they would have if they were still living, and you know … It’s not uncommon to see my son holding somebody’s paw, talking to them, and saying, you know, “We’re going to take care of you,” and, “You’re such a good boy,” or, you know, whatever he’s inspirited to say. But he’s an awesome little death positive baby.

Kelly MacLean: That’s amazing. And can you say something about what you think it gave to you to have this consciousness and acceptance and relationship with death as a young woman? And what you see it offering your son in terms of … You know, we think of death as an ending, and it is, but it’s also … The embrace of it can really enrich life. So I was wondering if you could [inaudible 00:27:02] that?

Joslin Roth: Absolutely. So I think as a young woman it gave me just an outlet and a place to be comfortable in the world around me, so it was more of a safe sacred space at that point in my life. And I think that was a different relationship than what I have with death positivity now. So in my current situation I find that this does so much to fill my cup on a daily basis, which sounds really the opposite … I think most people think death care must be exhausting and it must be sad, and it is. It is. Sometimes emotionally it takes a toll. You have to do self care if you are doing death care. However, every time someone thanks me, my cup fills, right? So every time someone says, ”Thank you for being here,” “Thank you for doing what you do,” I feel such positivity from that that it takes away the emotional stress that also comes with death care.

And for my son, I think it is a great way for us to talk about living life to the fullest, because we’re very aware that life can be short. Some of us get very long, beautiful, rich lives, and others of us just don’t. We get to talk about every day being a gift, and every day what we decide to do with that day will determine, you know, how enriched our lives will be. And I think that being aware of your mortality helps you to make good choices in your days, right? To not let negativity impact you, or not let the small things impact you quite as negatively as they would. And that doesn’t always work out but, you know … Life is complicated, and it’s really complex, and our relationships are complex, but when we really can be comfortable with the idea that we’re going to die, and our friends are going to die, and our family is going to die, I think that it helps us show grace a lot more. I think it helps us give people the benefit of the doubt a lot more, and just allows us to not care so much about the crap, because the crap just exists. It’s just there-

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Joslin Roth: You know? So I think that when you can flip that switch in your mind and let yourself really be okay with the fact that your life is going to be as long as it’s going to be, it gives you the opportunity to just live better. Just to live a better life … In my opinion.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I fully agree … In my opinion. Okay. And the last question that I always like to end on is what … If you have one wish for your own death, what is your wish?

[00:30:00]

Joslin Roth: Oh. So my wish is to actually know. To know it’s coming, so that I can best say my goodbyes or take that trip that I keep putting on the back burner. Like I actually really would prefer to know, so that I could give it my all. My one last shot.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah.

Joslin Roth: But … Yeah. I guess I just would love to have a magic ball that told me what to prepare for.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. And since we don’t have one, it sounds like you have done a lot of preparing on many levels.

Joslin Roth: I definitely try. I mean we … It’s something that I try to be very open and honest with my spouse and those around me, what my expectations look like … And because aquamation is in Oregon, we actually have this ongoing like kind of twisted joke that we’re going to ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ style, like put each other in a car, baseball hat on, sunglasses, and get to the state line and go, “I didn’t know they died. Oh my Gosh. We’re in Oregon State, can we get that aquamation?

Kelly MacLean:  That’s great.

Joslin Roth: So we’ll see. Hopefully we don’t have to ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ it, but-

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. Hopefully it’s legal there and in all 50 states-

Joslin Roth: In all … Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: For humans as well.

Joslin Roth: Absolutely.

Kelly MacLean: Well, wonderful Joslin. Thank you so much. And where can we find Resting Waters online-

Joslin Roth: Yeah. So just Resting Waters-

Kelly MacLean: For those in Seattle or those who want to ‘Weekend at Bernie’ it?

Joslin Roth: Yeah. We’re just restingwaters.com.

Kelly MacLean: Wonderful. Thank you for the beautiful work that you do-

Joslin Roth: Yeah. Thank you

Kelly MacLean: And for all the care you give to all those pets, and grieving families, and for taking time to share with us today.

Joslin Roth: Oh, thank you, Kelly. It’s been a pleasure.

Kelly MacLean: Wonderful. Yay. I think people are going to love that and I’m glad that it’s so timely. So I have a couple of others recorded, but I’m just going to go ahead and throw this one up there because a lot of our people are in California and are curious what aquamation is.

Joslin Roth: Right. Yeah. And, you know, there’s actually … I would say, probably as many as 12 aquamation facilities for pets in your state. I don’t know where you’re located, but a good friend of mine, Peter Erling, owns a place in L.A.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I live in L.A. That’s good to know.

Joslin Roth: Yeah. And I could find … So there are actually a group of in home euthanasia vets that do aquamation for the animals that they serve, and I don’t know if they market to the public specifically for aquamation, but they have a great facility, and, you know, if you were just interested, I’m sure I could ping Peter and say, “Hey, I have this woman in your area that would love to come take a tour or … “

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. Absolutely connect us. It would be cool to go in and take pictures for social media-

Joslin Roth: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: And maybe write a little thing about it.

Joslin Roth: Yeah. Sounds good. He is in town this weekend for the I-double A-HPC conference, which is the palliative hospice care for pets-

Kelly MacLean: Oh, cool.

Joslin Roth: And so I’ll be having dinner with him and his wife on Sunday, and she’s also a veterinarian that-

Kelly MacLean: Oh, perfect. Yeah.

Joslin Roth: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: Please mention me-

Joslin Roth: I will.

Kelly MacLean: And I would love to go over there.

Joslin Roth: Yeah. That would be great. No, it’s such a cool … I mean I so dig what we do, and don’t get me wrong, death care can be very messy, very, you know, at times humorous, because you’re not … You know, the first time I got peed on I was like, “Oh, wait. That’s part of this.” I did not make that connection when I decided that this was what I was going to do-

Kelly MacLean: Yeah.

Joslin Roth: But, you know, it’s … The other parts are so amazingly rewarding and the humor actually helps you get through some of the pain, you know?

Kelly MacLean: Oh, absolutely. Thank goodness for the humor of it.

Joslin Roth: Right. Alright, Kelly. This has been so much fun. Thank you, because I-

Kelly MacLean: Alright. So fun. Thank you a million.

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