Despite strong opposition from some, water cremation poised to become legal in Hawaii

Advocates say the method is also more respectful and less invasive
Published: May. 4, 2022 at 4:44 PM HST|Updated: May. 4, 2022 at 5:41 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii could soon be the 22nd state to allow water cremation.

Many cemetery and mortuary business owners opposed the bill, but advocates believe it’s time for more sustainable and culturally-appropriate approaches for treating our dead.

“You only have two options. One is to go with heat cremation, which is filthy and toxic. The other is to pay $20,000 to $30,000 to put your remains in a box,” said Mililani Trask, who plans to choose water cremation when she dies.

“But it doesn’t give you the option of taking your remains to the traditional place where our parents and grandparents are. It doesn’t give us the cultural option.”

She said the technology “is going to allow me to spread my ashes on Mauna Kea to take some of my ashes up to the legacy forest here on the Big Island to be planted with the koa and the rest to be taken to the sea. And I will know now that when my ashes go, there won’t be any mercury put onto our coral reefs, there won’t be mercury or other dangerous metals, contaminants let into the air that we breathe.”

Water cremation involves submerging the body in about 300 gallons of a solution that’s 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide ― at 300 degrees. It speeds up decomposition.

Unlike conventional flame cremation, the process better preserves bones, making it a good option for ceremonial wrapping and Hawaiian burial practices.

Advocates say the method is also more respectful and less invasive.

“It’s so gentle on the body. You don’t have to take out pacemakers. My mom, she has metal plates going down her back, that has to be removed before you go into the flame cremation,” said Kawehi Correa, president of Aloha Mortuary, who pushed for water cremation to be legalized in Hawaii.

“But with water, you don’t have to remove anything, any implants, any medical implants, any aesthetic implants, and none of that has to be removed.”

Correa says more Hawaii families are choosing cremation, which costs about a third of a casket burial. Water cremation gives them another option.

State Rep. Bob McDermott was the lone “no” vote on the bill.

“I want more study, a rigorous evaluation here in Hawaii and how it’s going to impact our waters,” he said. “300 gallons is a lot. And how many of these are going to be done today?”

He’s concerned about the impact on the state’s water amid potential rationing in the wake of the Red Hill controversy. He also worries about how the wastewater will be treated.

The state Department of Health “is required to have the counties determine those protocols. But I don’t feel comfortable with that. And I don’t think it’ll be uniform across the state,” he said.

But advocates point to leading institutions like the Mayo Clinic and UCLA who’ve been using the technology for years. The University of Hawaii uses water cremation on research animals.

“We proved to them over 30 times that it’s safe to send the water down the drain, because there’s no DNA left, it’s sterile,” said Dean Fisher, a pioneer in water cremation technology who helped push similar legislation in states like California and Minnesota.

“It’s actually better than what we do when we send our water to the drain, when we shower, when we brush our teeth, comb our hair, go to the bathroom, that all has DNA in it, and it’s all unsterile.”

Fisher has been funeral director for 38 years.

He and Correa believe it’s time for the funeral industry to evolve.

“What other business can you say hasn’t changed in the last 100 years? So it’s just time that this changes with the times too,” he said.

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