Atkins-Northland Funeral Home seeks new method of cremationA funeral home in Cloquet is definitely thinking outside the box about cremation.
By: Jana Peterson, Superior Telegram
A funeral home in Cloquet is definitely thinking outside the box about cremation.
Bob and Karen Atkins of Atkins-Northland Funeral Home, have requested expansion of their funeral home’s conditional use permit to allow installation and operation of a high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis machine to perform bio-cremation, a relatively new method of cremating a human body.
Unlike traditional cremation by fire, bio-cremation disposes of a deceased person’s body using water and an alkali solution at high temperature and high pressure. Essentially the opposite of fire, bio-cremation reduces the soft tissues of the body to a liquid form and leaves behind bone fragments, teeth and any metals or electronic parts, such as pacemakers and artificial joints.
The bone remains, or “ash,” are returned to a family, as it is in traditional cremation. The sterile effluent liquid – an average of 65 gallons per body, depending on size – goes into the sanitary sewer system along with water used to flush the bio-cremation unit. Using pressure, heat and alkali chemicals, it takes only a few hours to reduce the body to a mix of amino acids, peptides, sugars and soap. (See “FYI: Bio-Cremation” for more on the science of bio-cremation.)
Bob Atkins said the funeral directors want to invest in this technology for two main reasons: first, so they could retain custody of a deceased person’s body – which they currently transport back and forth to a crematorium in Superior – as well as providing a more “green” alternate to traditional cremation, which consumes substantially more energy and releases mercury from dental fillings and other pollutants into the air.
The Cloquet City Council will consider whether or not to allow the funeral home to operate a bio-cremation unit for disposal of human bodies at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday.
It’s a contentious issue. This past Tuesday, there was standing room only for the Cloquet Planning Commission meeting addressing the issue. At that meeting, commission members approved – with one dissenting vote each time – two different resolutions regarding bio-cremation: the first allowing alkaline hydrolysis machines as an accessory use for an approved mortuary or funeral home; the second approving a conditional use permit for the Atkins-Northland Funeral Home to use the machine at their facility at 801 14th St. in Cloquet. They would be the only funeral home in the Northland to offer such services, and the second in the state.
Location – in a residential neighborhood – and the fact that the liquid goes down the drain were the biggest sticking points for opponents of the permit, whose reasons ranged from emotional and/or religious objections, to fear of a sewer backup or declining property values.
Tuesday’s Cloquet Planning Commission meeting that took three hours, with the majority of audience members speaking in opposition to the procedure.
In the end, members of the Planning Commission voted 4:1 to recommend that the City Council amend the Cloquet City Code to allow operation of a high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis machine as an accessory use and approve the Atkins conditional use permit to allow them to own and operate such a machine. Commissioner Jesse Berglund was the only “nay” vote in both hearings.
Emotions certainly ran high during the Planning Commission hearing and at the informational meeting held at Atkins-Northland Funeral Home prior to the planning commission meeting. Audience members on both sides of the issue stated their opinions on the relatively new technology – and debated whether such a process is respectful or desecrates the human body.
Barb Wyman, at large councilor, fell firmly on the “desecrates” side of the emotional debate. Wyman attended both meetings and spoke passionately against the permit and the process itself, stating that she found the idea of reducing a body to liquid to be treated at a sewage treatment plant “morally reprehensible.”
Dale Provo, “interested citizen,” said he thought after research that it seemed like a greener approach to cremation, and one that was allowed by the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) which provides solid waste oversight and wastewater services for a 530 square mile region around Duluth, Minnesota that includes the cities of Duluth, Cloquet, Hermantown, Proctor, Carlton, Scanlon, Thomson and Wrenshall, and the surrounding townships.
“A small business in our community trying to improve their business and do more for the community, I’m in favor,” Provo said after the earlier meeting at the funeral home.
In an interview with the Pine Journal prior to Tuesday’s meeting, WLSSD spokesperson Karen Anderson said the sanitary district has been consulting on the issue with Atkins, Cloquet city staff, Rochester personnel – where the Mayo Clinic has been operating a similar machine since 2006 – and Bio-Response Solutions, the Indiana company that makes the alkaline hydrolysis machines.
“We don’t see the need at this time to [issue a] permit for the process,” Anderson said, explaining that WLSSD is reserving the right to require a permit in the future. “When it’s operational, we will sample the discharge and see what the characteristics are and if there are any concerns or any cause for a permit.
“We want to make sure that what they would be sewering doesn’t contain any pollutants of concern, things we would be concerned about passing through to the receiving waters [in the St. Louis River and St. Louis River Bay].”
Neighbor Gerald Manthey said he didn’t object to the process itself as much as the fact that it would take place in a residential neighborhood.
“People have the option of choosing burial, cremation by fire, burial at sea and now bio-cremation,” Manthey said. “I respect that choice. Is it fair for people who live in a neighborhood – eat there, sleep there – to not have a choice. It creates a moral issue that does not sit well with everyone. Why put it here? Why not put it somewhere away from people’s homes?”
Berglund said he voted against the conditional use permit because he didn’t see the bio-cremation unit as being consistent with a residential neighborhood and because the state statute states that alkaline hydrolysis units fall under the same regulations as crematoriums, which are only allowed in Cloquet’s heavy industrial zone.
Community Development Director Holly Butcher explained that city staff drew a line between the high temperature/high pressure alkaline hydrolysis units like the one at Mayo and the low pressure/low temperature units. Staff recommended the low pressure units be considered the same as crematoriums because there is more venting and the process takes longer. The high pressure units are different, she said.
“Staff has taken the position that this [high pressure/high temperature unit] is not the same as traditional crematorium with a stack [for smoke],” Butcher said. “It’s really an examination of sterilization of effluent, proper discharge, management of chemicals – and working with the sanitary sewer district on that – and engineering.”
After the planning commission voted to recommend approval of the process and his request for a conditional use permit, Bob Atkins said it’s really all about the families they serve.
“It’s important to us to give our families peace of mind,” he said. “They think the body is at our funeral home the whole time. When we tell them we don’t cremate on site, they’re not expecting that. With this, we keep the body on site and in our care. It’s a process that’s been approved. There’s nothing disgusting or repulsive, it’s only disgusting or repulsive if you think it is. It’s for our families, just like our fireside room. It’s just about service.”