You could call it a life-changing event that was caused by the way in which someone else chose to have their body handled after death. About a year ago, Hunter Beattie and his wife were working on a renovation of a house near a cemetery. While Beattie was taking a break from the project, he read an article about South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu, who died in 2021, and who chose the lesser-known body disposition method of aquamation over the more traditional ways of burial or cremation.
Even though he had created a successful career in real estate, Beattie felt unfulfilled in his work pursuits, and what he read about the environmental benefits of aquamation aligned with his own thoughts on being conscientious of his impact on his earthly surroundings.
“There was something about the environmental benefit, as well as just the profound nature of working with people who are dealing with grief and loss,” said Beattie, who lives in Hillsborough with his wife. “And I was looking for something that was my offering to this community that would feel meaningful. And this resonated with me on so many levels.”
Late last month, Beattie performed his first aquamation and received his license to open his aquamation business, which is one of only three in North Carolina. Endswell officially opened Nov. 1 at 407 Meadowlands Drive in Hillsborough. It is sufficient to say the last year has been a whirlwind of research, information processing, training, and setting up a business plan.
“I flew to Las Vegas where there’s a funeral home that has been offering aquamation for about four years,” he said. “I observed the aquamation of four people while I was there. That allowed me to get a certificate with the company that manufactures the machine. The State of North Carolina recognizes that certificate in that training program. And then I had other licensure requirements that dealt mostly with the building itself. But the the inspection involved aquamating an individual in front of the funeral board.”
According to Aquamationinfo.com, aquamation is a method of final disposition that is available for humans and pets. “The scientific name for this water-based process is alkaline hydrolysis. It is the same process that occurs as part of nature’s course when a body is laid to rest in the soil. A combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity are used to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials.”
Beattie said most people are unfamiliar with the aquamation process and tend to prefer the more traditional forms of body disposition. But what he also realized is most people are unfamiliar with what happens and is involved with those more traditional methods, particularly cremation. Once explained, Beattie said, people tend to see aquamation as a less-destructive and environmentally impactful method for handling a body.
“This seems like a gentler and simpler process than combusting the body, burning it at 1,800 degrees, puncturing the organs and pumping the body full of formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen. Even though this sounds crazy, it actually is a gentler process and one that’s much better for the environment than flame cremation,” he said.
Beattie spent about $300,000 for the aquamation machine, which with its shiny knobs, valves, tubes, and pipes looks like something right out of a 1960s science-fiction movie. But the large device is firmly at the cutting edge of technology, and is fully automated once the deceased is placed in the machine.
Once a body is placed in the cylindrical tube area of the aquamation machine, about 130 gallons of water is dispensed into the chamber. The exact amount of water fluctuates some, depending on the weight of the deceased.
“We add approximately 5 percent potassium hydroxide, the alkaline solution which breaks down the soft tissue in the same way that high heat from cremation breaks down the soft tissue.”
The process takes about four hours, dependent, again, on the size of the individual. You cannot see in the chamber, but a digital readout on the side of the machine provides information on the progress of the aquamation, which is fully automated and unlike a cremation chamber that has to be monitored.
Once the aquamation is complete, the skeletal remains have to be dried with a convection oven or dehydrator, prior to going into a cremulator that grinds the bones into a fine powder. From there, the remains are poured into an urn.
“What many people don’t know about cremation is that a rigid skeleton does come out,” Beattie said. “You see parts of the cranium, the femur, the scapula, the ribs, the vertebrae. And those need to be ground up.”
He said the initial question he gets from people when he shares about Endswell is “what happens to the liquid?” He believes he gets this question out of genuine curiosity about aquamation, but also because the more traditional methods have been accepted without investigation.
“What you have to understand is that something has to happen to the soft tissue,” Beattie said. “It either goes up into the air we breathe after it’s combusted — a process that forms many carcinogenic compounds as it vaporizes any mercury or other implants in the body — or we aquamate by breaking down the soft tissue in an alkaline solution and that liquid is filtered and treated at a wastewater facility. But something has to happen to that soft tissue and I guess people just haven’t thought about that with cremation.”
For all the raised eyebrows Beattie receives when he explains Endswell and aquamation, he also has received positive response from a fair share of folks in the community. Anne Weston, who is founder of the Green Burial Project, is excited for Beattie’s efforts, and that one of only three aquamation facilities in the state is in Hillsborough, even though it differs from what she advocates.
“Green burial doesn’t suit everyone,” she said. “Aquamation is another green option for people concerned about their carbon footprint at death. I think this is wonderful. When I heard that we had this opening in Hillsborough, only the third one in the state and Hillsborough gets it. I’m just delighted because this is a great option from an environmental standpoint and an even better option financially. This will also suit people who are transient, who may not feel that they’re going to be in one place for the rest of their lives. I think it fits superbly into an an informed, intelligent approach to body disposition.”
Beattie said even though his business provides assistance with ‘afterlife planning’ and resources, he himself is not a funeral director. He is a business owner. His company’s website extolls one “simple arrangement,” with no upselling or hidden fees.
The aquamation process availability is not the only area, though, that Beattie saw lacking in the end-of-life business. His company also offers a wide and varied selection of urns, many made by local and regional artists.
“I started looking at websites from other funeral homes in the area and two things that stood out were pretty shocking,” he said. “One was that they didn’t disclose their prices. It was impossible to find the price of a cremation or burial, with all the additional fees. The other was that all the urns looked exactly the same. They clearly were sourced from the same catalogs and they were imported. I know a lot of local artists and I just thought why not have something unique and special for a unique and special person? Something that speaks to you your taste?”
Endswell has hundreds of urns from which to choose, made from wood, pottery, glass, in varieties of shapes, styles, colors and sizes, all made by North Carolina artists.
Beattie said he’s in a place and career he would have never imagined he would be, but he’s never been happier with or more sure of his decision.
“I can’t believe that a year ago, I had never heard of aquamation,” Beattie said. “I can’t think of many things that would have been lower on the list than funeral care for me to pursue as a career. But I’ve encountered this miraculous community of death doulas, life celebrates, hospice volunteers, elder care advocates, people who are experiencing grief in a multitude of ways. And I’m very grateful that I have this opportunity to offer aquamation to this community.”
To learn more about aquamation and Endswell, you can go to www.endswellcremation.com.
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