Last week it was cow burps. This week it’s a strange new cremation technology. If you like offbeat stories about money that inform and amuse, you’ve come to the right place. I write one to two columns a week, and you can receive them directly to your inbox by subscribing for free. Catch up on previous weird stories here.
I love happy endings. This story has a frustrating but happy ending for both the business involved and its clients.
Back in January, 2021, Covid created such a backlog of bodies at L.A. County morgues that the local air quality agency lifted air pollution limits on crematories so they could work extended hours.
All the while, a California crematory with zero air quality issues was waiting for state approval to begin operating, approval it should have received six months earlier. The facility could’ve been a huge help during the crisis.
But the state said no.
Seven months later, with Covid waning (for now), the facility finally got the green light. It’s been an eye-opening experience for two small-business owners who learned what happens when an entrenched bureaucracy is made worse by a pandemic that forces state employees to work from home.
“No matter what we did or said, it really didn’t have a significant impact on moving this thing through,” says Phil Barrick, co-owner of White Rose Aqua Cremation in the Southern California city of Escondido.
Early Wells $treet subscribers will recall my original story on White Rose, started by Phil and his business partner, David Perfito.
The two men already owned a wiring business, and one day they were doing an installation inside a crematorium office when they noticed how quiet it was. Not many calls. Customers weren’t complaining (that joke never gets old!). They did a little research and discovered the margins in the funeral industry are, well, very good.
So being entrepreneurs, Phil and David decided to start their own cremation business. Then they discovered “aquamation,” aka “alkaline hydrolysis,” a relatively new method of body disposal that the Cremation Association of North America says is greener than traditional flame cremation.
The two men spent $250,000 on an aquamation machine built by Bio-Response Solutions in Danville, Indiana, and they poured another $750,000 into building the business.
I visited White Rose last summer to see how the machine works. At the time, this is how I described the aquamation chamber:
“I’m standing in an immaculate room in Escondido, California, north of San Diego. Abstract blue paintings on white walls evoke gentle thoughts of water and the sea. In the middle of the room is a large and shiny metal tube lying on its side about four feet off the ground.”
David Perfito opened the machine for me and explained how the process works.
Aquamation involves placing a body inside a tube with 100 gallons of water mixed with enough potassium hydroxide flakes to make up 5% of the solution. The tube is sealed, pressurized, and heated to between 200 and 300 degrees. The water then flows through the system, slowly dissolving the body, and the machine is tilted to let gravity remove the effluent. The process can take several hours — longer than flame cremation — leaving behind only bones and metal implants. (Unlike flame cremation, such implants do not have to be removed first.)
The fluids safely go into the groundwater system. The returning water is sterile, and it’s tested to make sure the pH level is harmless. Even drugs in the body or embalming fluids will be destroyed and neutralized in the process. The remaining bones are ground up into a fine powder.
Not only is the process cleaner in terms of air quality than traditional flame cremation, but families receive more “ash.” Laura Sussman of Kraft-Sussman Funeral & Cremation Services in Las Vegas has an aquamation machine approved by the state of Nevada. She’s used it hundreds of times, and she says the process is so gentle that even the tiny bones of a fetus survive, something that rarely happens in flame creation. “For that family, it’s a miracle, really,” she told me.
The retail cost of human aquamation ranges from $2,500–$4,000, making it more expensive than flame cremation, but more families are choosing it for environmental reasons. The process is legal in nearly half the country, and it’s approved for pets in all 50 states.
I found out about aquamation from Gregg Miller, creator of Neuticles, a company that makes fake dog testicles (it’s a long story). Gregg told me last year that he’s chosen aquamation for himself and for his dog, Humphrey, when their time comes. “Do I want to be put into an oven at 2,000 degrees and burned?” he exclaimed in horror. Instead, he wanted something “gentler and more natural.”
Gregg was so excited about the prospect of a cleaner, greener disposal that he had to tell me. He knew I’d be interested.
Some people just get me.
By the way, here’s my original story on Gregg and his fake dog balls:
But back to aquamation. I discovered that California legalized alkaline hydrolysis for humans in 2017, and the state said licensed facilities could start using the technology in July 2020.
So David and Phil poured $1 million into being up and running by that date. They received local approval from the city and water quality officials. They started marketing their eco-friendly funerals. A few families expressed interest. All White Rose needed was the final sign-off from the state.
One year later, by the time I met David and Phil, the state still hadn’t approved their license. “It doesn’t seem like they really care.” David told me.
He and Phil were running into the kind of red tape reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. California is notoriously unfriendly to small business, and Covid made it even harder to get anyone in Sacramento to move, even though the state had already approved the concept.
Phil estimates they’d lost $2 million in potential revenue by then. “We started running into obstacles with the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau wanting to rewrite some of the rules and regulations,” he says. “We struggled through that process.”
The public health department stepped in with a lot of questions about the machine. “California wanted the manufacturer to make some adjustments,” Phil says. “So the manufacturer had to do updates to their firmware, push that out, and have us do a trial run just with water.” He says Bio-Response Solutions spent roughly $25,000 on additional testing. Meantime, the state seemed to ignore the fact that UCLA had been using an approved aquamation machine to dispose of donor bodies for years.
Through it all, David and Phil tried to make a little money. They began accepting aquamation requests from families and driving the deceased 300 miles to Las Vegas to use Laura Sussman’s machine. That cut into profits at a time when the company was trying to generate its first sales.
I reached out to the state health department when I first reported the story and was told by the agency that they were taking ”considerable time researching the various features and capabilities that are germane to this system.” I also reached out to the author of the original legislation, former state assemblyman Todd Gloria, now the mayor of San Diego. He never responded, and he never helped out the White Rose guys, even though they were operating in San Diego’s backyard. Weird.
But these two guys wouldn’t give up! They kept contacting the state for updates. “We don’t know how many times we heard, ‘It’s going to be two weeks,’” Phil told me.
Well, 39 weeks after I first Phil and David, the state finally gave birth to approval. “[We have] license number HF1,” Phil tells me, meaning it’s the first hydrolysis facility to be approved in the state of California. “That’s kind of cool.”
A few weeks ago, White Rose had its official grand opening. Local officials came out, along with a local television station. Phil and David have also received their first customers for their own machine. No more trips to Las Vegas.
Phil tells me the machine works perfectly, and then he gets a little emotional. As a long-time businessman used to dealing with clients in his wiring business, he finds this new venture much more meaningful. “It really touches all of us that we can help families in that way.”
Both men are still smarting from the bureaucratic runaround, but they wear their battle scars with pride.
“I consider us the pioneers in California, because we’re the first that took this endeavor on to purchase a machine, create a facility and create a business,” Phil tells me. “I think it’s kind of a big deal myself.”