Also known as alkaline hydrolysis, biocremation or resomation, the technology uses heated water, potassium hydroxide and turbulence to dissolve body tissue within three to four hours.
The end results: pure white bones that can be pulverized into a substance similar to ash and a liquid that proponents say is a sterile, environmentally safe solution that can be safely washed down the drain or even used to water plants.
The technology has been in use for more than a decade, mostly by research laboratories that dispose of animal remains. But soon, California residents may have the option at the mortuary as well.
State Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, has introduced a bill that would add the process to the list of legally allowable ways mortuaries can deal with human remains.
Supporters say it will offer environmentally conscious consumers a way to avoid the pitfalls of traditional end-of-life options.
Cremation uses fossil fuels and is regulated by environmental officials because of the air emissions. Burials also pose environmental challenges because embalming fluids are generally made of chemicals, including formaldehyde, that eventually leak into the ground. There's also less and less space for cemeteries, especially in dense urban areas such as the Bay Area.
The technology has already been approved in several other states, and a funeral home in Florida will soon be the first place in the nation to offer it to the public, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Miller said he anticipates no problems getting his proposal through the Legislature.
The Catholic Church's National Bioethics Center has given its blessing to the procedure, and the Department of Anatomy at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has been using the process - its website refers to it as "chemical cremation" - on cadavers donated for research. In Europe, it's been used at funeral homes for years, said James Olson, a spokesman for the funeral directors group.
The process is fairly simple: A body is placed into a large stainless steel machine with water and potassium hydroxide, an inorganic compound. It is then heated to more than 300 degrees. Turbulence created by the machine helps speed the decomposition process, dissolving flesh and soft tissue.