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Jul 31, 2017 8:28 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Businessman Involved In New Company Touting Burial Alternative

Pat McCann, center, hosts an October 2016 launch event in which members of the funeral industry of 21 different countries were introduced to ecoLation. COURTESY PAT McCANN
Aug 2, 2017 10:23 AM

By 2024, the world’s population is expected to eclipse eight billion people, and as it grows, so too will the population that lies buried beneath the surface—to the detriment of the environment.But in the coming years, a new “death care” option may be introduced in the United States, one designed to curb carbon emissions, run on reusable energy, and reduce the toxins that cremation leaves behind. It’s dubbed ecoLation, created by an Ireland-based company, EcoLegacy.

“We’re going to change the world,” said Pat McCann, a board member of EcoLegacy, who is residing in Southampton for the summer to assist with another venture, the opening of the Southampton Spa at 71 Hill Street. “I think we’re going to be one of the paradigm shifters. The hallmark of a great invention is saying, ‘Why didn’t we think of that before?’”

A Sustainable Option

EcoLation works as follows: The body is chilled until it becomes brittle. It is then reduced into small particles by a mechanical press. Those particles are subjected to intense heat and pressure, evaporating any water they hold as their molecules break down. No chemicals are used in the process; it is an entirely physical chain reaction.

What is left is a white powder—the body’s elements, like calcium, carbon and phosphorus—said to be purer than what cremation leaves behind. Residual chemicals are trapped and neutralized, according to Mr. McCann and EcoLegacy’s website.

During the process, the body’s fat, which is stored as energy, is converted into a biogas and used to generate power for the ecoLation of the next body, making the process something of a self-sustaining alternative to burials.

The remains are put into a biodegradable urn that can be planted with a tree or flower, if the family desires.

Mr. McCann, who grew up in Manhattan, is a Paris resident and businessman. While working in Europe’s energy sector, he crossed paths with EcoLegacy’s founder, Tony Ennis, who made millions in Ireland’s energy manufacturing sector with his company, Vayu.

The two men became friends, and when Mr. Ennis liquidated his business for a hefty payday, freeing up time to pursue environmental innovation, Mr. McCann was one of the first to jump on board.

Mr. McCann is spending the lull in Southampton as he awaits various accreditations.

The company just finalized its six-year research-and-development phase, during which the proprietary machine was tinkered with and pigs were used as test subjects—EcoLation has not yet been used on a human.

An independent third party, LCAworks—an English company that assesses carbon footprint and sustainability—monitored the process on pigs. It found that ecoLation emitted 1 percent of the amount of carbon dioxide that cremations do, Mr. McCann said.

LCAworks could not be immediately reached to verify those results.

Current Choices

Every year, 55 million people die, including 2.5 million annually in the United States. Depending on the state, there are four so-called death care options: cremation, traditional burial, green burial and hydrolysis, also known as biocremation or “water cremation.”

This year, for the first time in history, cremation surpassed casket burials as America’s most popular method of death care. It is also the practice most hazardous to the atmosphere.

The human body is, give or take, 70 percent water, depending on age, gender and level of fitness. To burn a body is akin to burning a water-logged phone book; it requires continual exposure to flame and extreme heat. Fueled by a constant supply of unsustainable natural gases, retorts—the cremation chambers—burn at temperatures from 1,600 to 2,000 degrees for 90 minutes to three hours.

By the end, 880 pounds of carbon dioxide is released through a smokestack, the equivalent of driving a car continuously for 15 and a half hours. All the while, toxic metals like lead, tin, copper and magnesium are emitted when the body is calcified, while metals such as arsenic and selenium, though present in a live human body, are volatile and decompose quickly upon burning.

Traditional burials, though certainly a peg below cremation in the environmentally harmful hierarchy, are by no means green themselves. Most caskets are made from hundreds of pounds of wood and metals, and burial vaults, which enclose the casket, can use thousands of pounds of cement. These materials degrade slowly, oozing into the soil ostensibly forever.

The body also leaks toxins, whether they be natural—via chemicals injected in a hospital prior to death—or embalming fluid, usually a toxic mixture of formaldehyde and methanol, although eco-friendly mixtures have recently been introduced to the market.

Finally, there are the lesser-used options: green burial and hydrolysis. Green burials, which are popular in Western states, particularly California, substitute traditional caskets for biodegradable ones or abandon the box altogether, instead wrapping the body in a shroud for burial. Toxins still leak from the body, potentially harming the water supply.

Hydrolysis, more properly named alkaline hydrolysis, is the process of dissolving bodies into a liquid that can be drained into a sewage system. It uses 88 percent less energy than cremation, but is legal in only 11 states. The idea of decomposing in a vat of chemical compounds doesn’t sit well with most Americans. And the process uses a tremendous amount of water—300 gallons per person.

A “Crapshoot”

For the eco-minded person, none of those options may seem suitable. But even if ecoLegacy can substantiate its claims, introduction of ecoLation to actual markets will be met by a host of complications.

“If you’re making this big investment, which I’m sure it is, it’s a crapshoot,” said John Abbate, owner and manager of Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton.

In New York, there is a clear delineation between church and state; only cemeterians can dispose of a body, whether by burial or cremation, while funeral directors may hold services. And both branches require a flurry of licenses and schooling, and are subject to a great number of regulations.

The upside is a clear system of checks and balances, says John Abbate’s son, Dominick Abbate, a licensed funeral director. The downside: potential innovative systems are stymied by lethargic bureaucratic processes.

Conversely, a state like Colorado adopts much looser regulations. Any person, regardless of qualification, can set up shop and serve as an all-in-one cemeterian and funeral director—no license needed.

Mr. McCann says that EcoLegacy’s business plan is to introduce the process in the more liberal-minded areas of California and Western Europe, starting with a possible pilot program in California in 2018. From there, he hopes to slowly familiarize the public with the idea of cryomation and hopes that its adoption fans outward from there.

“We think there’s going to by a domino effect, with California being the precursor,” Mr. McCann said. “As California goes, so goes the country and the rest of the world, sooner or later. It could be that, in our lifetime, we could see flame cremation banned, not just in America but across the world.”

But in an industry that has seen little profound change, overhauling the status quo is a lofty task.

“It’s not so much against innovation, per se, as it is against innovations that would seem to threaten the basis for a funeral director’s control over the corpse,” said Philip Olson, a philosophy professor at Virginia Tech whose work focuses on the social, economic and environmental influences of burial practices.

America’s contemporary funeral industry was born out of embalming, Mr. Olson explained. The United States and Canada are the only two countries that adopted embalming and the subsequent viewing of the corpse as standard routine. Today, it is considered status quo—simply what one does with a corpse. Directors may not be so willing to relinquish that influence.

“We’re talking about the industrial processing of human remains,” Mr. Olson said. “There’s an industry doing this. What they’re producing is an embalmed corpse, and they’re saying that vision—that viewing of this embalmed corpse—is important for grief … The embalm-and-bury regime won. They converted everybody.”

It’s because of this burial stronghold that EcoLegacy plans to outsource to existing funeral homes and cemeteries, rather than establishing its own branch of funeral homes. They would finance the new machines themselves and work with partners who already undergo a large number of cremations in hopes that they would have enough ecoLation opportunities to fund the financing.

Like cremation, ecoLation is at odds with many religious practices, particularly that of traditional Jewish and Muslim burials, which require the body to remain intact after death.

“[EcoLation] is rather fascinating. Nevertheless, the short answer is: it does not fulfill the requirement of burial,” Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, an organization founded in 1996 to assist in defining burial practices of Jewish law, said in an email.

Changing of the Guard

EcoLegacy certainly faces challenges in bringing its new death care option to the market. But changing attitudes among young people about both funeral practices and environmental impacts could pave the way for the company to become viable.

“For the millennial generation, it’s cost,” the elder Mr. Abbate said of the attraction to cremation, which typically costs from $3,000 to $6,000 with a ceremony. Mr. McCann pegs the targeted ecoLation price at $3,500 to $7,000, situating it in between the cost of cremation and traditional burials, which run at $8,000 on the low end, and up to $50,000 when luxury caskets are used.

“It’s not doing a traditional funeral like their parents and grandparents did. They feel it’s barbaric to have the body viewed,” the elder Mr. Abbate added.

While he estimates that only 1 percent of Brockett’s customers inquire about environmental impacts, he admits that decades ago, when he first started, no one did. People are interested in green burials, but they usually opt against it because of its foreignness, he added. Occasionally, a customer opts for natural embalmment.

“You don’t have that group of consumers screaming that they want this. That might be the first thing that might drive it,” he said.

But the younger Mr. Abbate thinks that as younger, more environmentally cautious, less religiously affiliated generations age, the funeral industry will change drastically. A new guard of funeral directors will primarily be “options oriented”—a promising trend for ecoLation.

“I do think that it’s going to rapidly change, I really do. I know you are a little old school,” he said to his father. “I think it has to, and I think, in the funeral industry, it’s all about options now, which it wasn’t in the past. Not everybody wants the cookie-cutter funeral.”

“I like the concept [of ecoLation],” the younger Mr. Abbate said. “I think people who are environmentally friendly would, too. And I think everybody is eventually going to have to get on board with that.”

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Is this a paid "advertorial"? It hardly qualifies as news.
By Arnold Timer (321), Sag Harbor on Aug 1, 17 9:31 PM
Sounds like frozen, reduced to small pieces, compressed and subjected to extreme heat.
Sounds like frozen, pressed, chipped and then cremated??? Just no casket.
By knitter (1717), Southampton on Aug 2, 17 6:27 PM