Ecology, Theology and the Christian Dead


Professor Douglas Davies, FBA, is an anthropologist and theologian at Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion where, among other things, he teaches on death, ritual, symbolism and belief. Here he discusses the practice of alkaline hydrolysis, or Resomation, as an alternative to burial or cremation. The practice has already been available in other countries for some time, and will be made available in the UK later this year.

One current intersection of Christian leadership and science concerns the dead, global warming, land-use, and the innovation of alkaline hydrolysis of corpses. For two millennia Christians espoused earth-burial despite its difference from the tomb-burial of Jesus. Paul was responsible for this through 1 Corinthians 15 where he echoes Genesis regarding humanity’s creation as dust from dust and dust to dust and contrasts the ‘earthy’ with the risen Jesus, the ‘spiritual’ and ‘heavenly’ destiny of the faithful – all framed by beliefs of creation, fall, redemption.

Time passed. Then the 1870 – 80s witnessed the emergence of modern cremation with freethinkers and others fostering hygienic modes of disposal and its own form of environmentalism captured in The Cremation Society of Great Britain’s motto – ‘save the land for the living’. This deployed industrial technology to incinerate the dead (The Encyclopedia of Cremation, Douglas Davies and Lewis Mates, 2005). Initially, mainstream Christian churches disliked and opposed cremation, with Catholics objecting until the mid-1960s, and the Orthodox still retaining reservations. Theologically and liturgically practically nothing was addressed to cremation; burial rites were simply adapted with a few ‘cremation’ references added. Ashes or cremated remains emerged as a challenge, with churches seeking their interment while thousands of folk simply placed them wherever they wished.

By 2023 the UK has roughly 80% of its dead cremated while scientific-engineering data have come to see the deleterious effects of noxious emissions from cremators, with many having to install extensive and expensive mercury abatement equipment. What had been seen as ‘green’ in Victorian Britain was now much less so. Concurrently, culturally speaking, non-clergy funeral celebrants have emerged and just overtaken formerly Christian-led ceremonies. In the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic further influenced funeral ceremony with ‘direct’ cremations involving the collection of corpses, their cremation – often without any formal ceremony or kin participation – and the subsequent delivery of ashes to the family. This practice moved from around 3% of pre-pandemic funerals to something like 18% by 2023.

And now alkaline hydrolysis of bodies, already practised in the USA for roughly a decade, is about to be made available in the UK, perhaps by the close of 2023 or early 2024. This involves placing the body in a container of heated and pressurized water plus a low percentage of alkaline. After several hours, fragile skeletal remains are removed, dried and easily reduced to flour-like, white remains for returning to the family. The prime selling point for this practice of Resomation (as one tradename designates it) is that it has a much lower ecological and environmental ‘footprint’. In other words, it speaks to ecological-environmental needs while psychologically presenting a process that is more ‘gentle’ than the aggressive fire of cremation. This option is even marketed, especially in the USA, as ‘water-cremation’. Increasing numbers of UK Water Authorities are prepared to accept the practice and its aqueous output (neutralized by acid) as devoid of any DNA and as appropriate for the public water disposal system. Doubtless, Resomation and cremation facilities will come to be provided at the same Funeral Centres. Two personal challenges remain.

First, the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, of which I am Director, has received a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to work with the Kindly Earth company; likely to be the first Resomation provided in the UK. We will research Resomation’s implementation and development over the next two years. This KTP involves financial input from both government and company and will study families, funeral directors and church and civil celebrants. Moreover, my postgraduate, Georgina Robinson, has just taken her PhD at Durham’s Department of Theology and Religion, focused on alkaline hydrolysis and its cultural implications in the UK and USA, something easily found online.

Second, churches and religious traditions, not least the Church of England, will be prompted to consider theological and liturgical framings of Resomation. Here religious thinking and ethics over global warming and environmental-ecological factors emerge as a creative theological challenge to the identity and destiny of believers.  Here the creation-fall motif of Pauline burial-resurrection needs radical reconsideration in terms of creation and ethical responsibility for the earth. Just what is made of sin and salvation remains to be seen. As for UK woodland, natural or green burial that emerged in the 1990s, this too carries ecological values, but it still uses land. Other ‘composting’ methods of disposal are also currently in experimental stages.

Together, then, death poses more than the ‘sting of sin’, inviting new theology, ethics, and liturgy with Christian leaders having a keen part to play in the science and environmental stewardship of the earth. How might you frame it?

Prof Douglas Davies FBA

Durham University.



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