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Energy & Environment

A plain pine coffin and eco-friendly cremation are the last acts of Desmond Tutu

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg in 2016. Tutu was a champion for human rights and the environment. He requested he be buried in a cheap pine coffin and without an extravagant funeral service.
Denis Farrell
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AP
Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg in 2016. Tutu was a champion for human rights and the environment. He requested he be buried in a cheap pine coffin and without an extravagant funeral service.

Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid leader and Anglican archbishop emeritus, died last Sunday in Cape Town, South Africa. Despite his monumental status, he requested a humble sendoff in a pine coffin without extravagant spending on the services. And in his last act as a champion of the environment, his remains will undergo aquamation, an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation.

Tutu's ashes will be interred at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, the BBC reported Saturday. But before his remains are laid to rest, they must first undergo a process called aquamation.

Scientifically speaking, the process is called alkaline hydrolysis. According to Bio-Response Solutions, an Indiana-based company that specializes in aquamation services, the body undergoes the same process it would as if it were buried in the ground.

Water, alkaline chemicals and heat are used to accelerate the decomposition process that takes place in nature. The body is loaded into a stainless-steel vessel and filled with a mix of 95% water and 5% alkali. The mix heated to 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit and gently circulates for 6-8 hours.

By comparison, traditional cremation uses temperatures as high as 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit and takes approximately two hours.

Only the bones are left at the end of both aquamation and cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. From there, the bones are broken down further into a fine powder or dust and placed in an urn.

One of the biggest benefits of aquamation is its minimal impact on the environment. The process doesn't use any fossil fuels and is 90% more energy efficient than standard cremation, Bio-Response Solutions says.

On top of fighting for human rights, Tutu was adamant about defending the planet. The Very Rev. Michael Weeder, dean of St. George's Cathedral, said Tutu aspired to be an "eco-warrior," the BBC reported.

An announcement from the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation following the archbishop's death said he "vociferously campaigned for gentler stewardship of the Earth, and against the coming ravages of climate change."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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