Hunter Beattie is still relatively new to working around death.
The Orange County resident made a significant career change one year ago when he switched from working in real estate and decided to create one of the handful of aquamation services offered in North Carolina.
Sitting in the welcoming area of his Hillsborough business, Endswell, Beattie describes his journey into the industry of alternative funeral care as both environmentally friendly and service based.
It started when Beattie read about the death of South African leader and activist Desmond Tutu last January. He says he remembers sitting at the Carrboro Farmers Market, learning that Tutu was choosing cremation by water, and looking over to a nearby cemetery.
“I’m reading all these articles – the Times, the Guardian, BBC – everyone picked up this story,” said Beattie. “It was probably the first time I really questioned this practice of preserving dead bodies, putting them in shiny, ornate boxes, putting those in concrete vaults so the ground doesn’t collapse, and then taking this space that could be used by the community [instead] for dead body storage.”
Beattie, who also previously worked in renewable energy and whose wife works in solar power, says he put a deposit down on an aquamation machine a few weeks later. The process is slowly becoming more common, as North Carolina made it legal in 2018. Once Endswell opened its doors in late 2022, it became just the third location in the state to offer the water cremation service.
While research on the energy used for cremation vs. aquamation is still being determined, Beattie says the aquamation process and result is much more environmentally conscious.
“The goal of both cremation and aquamation is to remove the soft tissue that would otherwise decompose and then return bone remains to the family,” he describes. “They’re identical processes in that respect – but from there, it gets different. The soft tissue has to go somewhere. Cremation combusts it at 1,700-1,800 degrees, it goes up through a chimney along with any mercury from dental fillings and into the air we breathe [as] toxic gases, greenhouse gases.”
Aquamation, meanwhile, is also known as alkaline hydrolysis and involves a solution that is 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide. The process takes place in a cylindrical steel chamber that takes up just a quarter of the space in Beattie’s back room at Endswell.
“Once the body is placed in the machine and the door is shut,” he says, “I tilt the entire machine upward which gets the potassium hydroxide off of the seal and allows us to use less water.”
Over the course of a few hours, the solution converts the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that make up a body into materials that can be filtered out at a wastewater treatment plant – which is where the water is flushed to once the aquamation is finished. Then, Endswell removes the bones, crushes them into a powder and places them into an urn for the family.
While the aquamation process is relatively unique, Beattie is aiming for his urn offerings to be as well. He said from his family’s experience selecting a vessel after his father’s passing, he was disappointed that many urns are mass-produced, garish or a combination of both.
“And it just struck me as odd that when you’re remembering and honoring this a special and unique person that you wouldn’t do so with art,” he says, “with something unique that suits their taste – or maybe suits your taste.”
Instead, Endswell customers can choose a lower-price package of a bamboo vessel for remains – or select from the hundreds of urns on display in the business’ gallery. Beattie says he’s partnering with potters from Orange County and across North Carolina to fill the space with pieces meant to be more meaningful.
Ultimately, Beattie says he believes his work with Endswell will be even more meaningful to him too. While he describes starting his business as so busy that he’s still processing his emotions around the after-life care, he says he’s beginning to appreciate how his services are based on a “longer-term relationship with the community.” Already, there are dozens of people who have signed up for the local aquamation and Beattie says that listening to those patrons describe their decision is powerful.
“I think that even though I never really wanted to get into funeral work,” he says, “this business still really aligns with those values of doing something that’s ecologically responsible, but also community-focused [and] community service focused.”
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