Clerics carry the coffin after the funeral for Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, Saturday, Jan 1, 2022.

What is aquamation, the burial practice Desmond Tutu chose instead of cremation? 

Aquamation is a corpse decomposition process that uses water instead of fire to produce similar results — an urn of ashes. It’s seen as a “greener alternative” to carbon-emitting cremation. 

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Clerics carry the coffin after the funeral for Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, Jan 1, 2022.

Jaco Marais/AP/Pool 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was laid to rest on Sunday in Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu was a Nobel laureate, anti-apartheid activist and staunch advocate for protecting the environment. 

At his request, his body underwent a process known as aquamation that uses water instead of fire to produce the same results — an urn of ashes. The process is considered a greener alternative to cremation. 

Related: Cape Town bells toll to honor Archbishop Desmond Tutu's life

Samantha Sieber is the vice president of research at Bio-Response Solutions, an Indiana-based company that manufactures the necessary equipment for aquamation. Sieber said the process uses a solution of 95% water and 5% alkaline to “essentially accomplish what burial on the ground may take years to do in a matter of hours.” 

Tutu’s decision to use aquamation has garnered newfound interest in the eco-friendly process, Sieber said. 

Related: Remembering the life and legacy of the late FW de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid president

“I think what's happened with Archbishop Tutu is there's a certain respect to the way that it's being described, the fact that he researched it and decided that was part of the set of decisions he wanted to make — including his very simple casket, the simple flowers, having an overall eco-conscious mindset — when making those decisions."

Samantha Sieber, vice president of research, Bio-Response Solutions, Indiana

“I think what's happened with Archbishop Tutu is there's a certain respect to the way that it's being described, the fact that he researched it and decided that was part of the set of decisions he wanted to make — including his very simple casket, the simple flowers, having an overall eco-conscious mindset — when making those decisions,” Sieber said. 

As societies become more eco-conscious in decision-making in all aspects of life, aquamation has grown in popularity as a viable alternative. The process, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, yields over 90% energy savings when compared to flame-based cremation, while providing 20% more ash remains to the family, according to Bio-Response.

The process doesn't require the burning of fossil fuels and doesn't emit harmful greenhouse gases or mercury. The water returns to the ecosystem using regular wastewater treatment facilities, similar to what funeral homes do during an embalming process, the company website explains.

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Aquamation is legal in South Africa, Costa Rica, many Canadian provinces and at least 23 states in the United States — but not yet in Indiana, where Sieber’s company is based. 

It’s not quite illegal, Sieber said, but funeral laws there don’t exist yet for this type of process. 

“We have found that it's really best to have regulatory authorities involved early on and formally address it and approve it prior to ever moving the technology into an area."

Samantha Sieber, Bio-Response Solutions, Indiana

“It's just simply not addressed at all,” she said. “We have found that it's really best to have regulatory authorities involved early on and formally address it and approve it prior to ever moving the technology into an area.” 

Related: Greece's first and only crematorium opens despite pushback from the church

For now, Bio-Response primarily helps funeral homes, crematories and small businesses bring it to their local markets. 

"Fire is sacred to many cultures — viewed as part of a death ritual and a lot of cultures — so, it could go either way. And burial, the same way. S,o it's always a very personal decision."