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Funeral directors in 15 states can now offer the eco-friendlier 'water cremation'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As climate change rages, options for handling the deceased are changing. To reduce the carbon footprint of traditional cremation, there is a technology that uses water instead of fire. From member station KUNC, Alex Hager reports.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Carlota Striffler isn't scared to talk about death, even her own.

CARLOTA STRIFFLER: I think what I would have really liked, if it had been years ago - it would have been to be taken up on a mountaintop and put on top of a platform and just kind of go back to the elements that way. But they don't let you do that anymore.

HAGER: When she was a kid, Striffler's dad was a minister, so she spent a lot of time around funerals. Now that she's 73, she says that makes it easier to talk about what should happen after she's gone.

STRIFFLER: I'm a Virgo, and so I like to plan things. And I feel much less anxious about dying eventually knowing that I have this in place.

HAGER: By this, Striffler means plans for a new form of cremation. We're standing in front of the machine that will someday break down her body using water.

STRIFFLER: I was in a fire years ago, and so - and I've never wanted a regular burial, but I thought I'm going to have to go with a regular cremation.

HAGER: But when she learned about water cremation, she says it sounded more soothing. She also likes that it has about one-tenth of the carbon footprint of traditional cremation. Experts say there are virtually no emissions into the atmosphere, and the lower temperature uses less energy.

STRIFFLER: I guess it's just part of who I am, trying to kind of save our Earth a little bit.

HAGER: Chris Goes, the owner of this funeral home, explains why he bought the machine.

CHRIS GOES: Progress. It was just natural to me that we need to just grow and grow beyond what's the same old, same old.

HAGER: And that's resonating with people planning funerals.

GOES: First man who we looked after in this equipment - he wanted to be first. And his family was just so pleased that they had an opportunity to take care of the environment, honor Dad and let him be first yet again. He was quite the competitor.

HAGER: The machine itself is a shiny silver tube about the length of a small car and standing taller than everyone in the room. It's topped with valves and gauges and pipes.

GOES: Space Age has been brought up from people who have witnessed this. The equipment looks rather futuristic.

HAGER: Goes and a colleague open the machine, unsealing a circular metal door that looks like the outside of a bank vault.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready - one, two, three.

HAGER: Inside there's a metal cage where overhead sprinklers rain water and potassium hydroxide down over the person's body. Then it's tipped to an angle.

GOES: So there's water filling in the lower end as it's up and then just bathes the person and reduces our body to our bones.

HAGER: The process is called alkaline hydrolysis, and it's not cheap. At Goes' funeral home, the water-based option is $3,200 - 1,000 more than the old way. Nationwide, it's growing in popularity, but still not very common. Of all cremations in 2021, fewer than 1% were water cremation. It's a trend Carlota Striffler will be happy to join, even standing in the same room as the machine that will reduce her to remains.

STRIFFLER: Yeah. It isn't a frightening-looking piece of equipment to me.

HAGER: And by the time she's going in the machine, Striffler says she won't be looking at it anyway. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in Fort Collins, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMIA SONG, "BEAUTIFUL SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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