Hunter Beattie is still relatively new to death work.
The Orange County resident made a significant career change a 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 cozy part of his Hillsborough business, Endswell, Beattie describes his journey into the alternative funeral care industry as eco-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 to be cremated in water, and looking toward a nearby cemetery.
“I read all these articles – the Times, the Guardian, the BBC – they all picked up this story,” Beattie said. “It was probably the first time I really questioned this practice of keeping dead bodies, putting them in shiny, ornate boxes, putting them in concrete vaults so the ground wouldn’t collapse, and then taking this space that could be used by the community. [instead] for storing dead bodies.”
Beattie, who also previously worked in renewable energy and whose wife works in solar power, says he put down a deposit on the aquamation machine a few weeks later. The process is slowly becoming more common, as North Carolina legalized it in 2018. After Endswell opened its doors in late 2022, it became only the third place in the state to offer a water cremation service.
While the research on the energy used in cremation versus aquamation is still being determined, Beattie says the process itself and the result are much more environmentally conscious.
“The goal of both cremation and aquamation is to remove the soft tissue that would otherwise decompose and then return the remains of the bones to the family,” he describes. “Their identical processes in that respect – but it gets different from there. The soft tissue has to go somewhere. During cremation, it burns at 1700-1800 degrees, goes up through the chimney together with mercury from dental fillings into the air we breathe. [as] toxic gases, greenhouse gases.”
Meanwhile, aquamation is also known as alkaline hydrolysis and involves a solution consisting of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide. The process takes place in a cylindrical steel chamber that takes up only a quarter of the space in Beattie’s back room in Endswell.
“When the body is put in the machine and the door is closed,” he says, “I tilt the whole machine up, which removes the potassium hydroxide from the seal and allows us to use less water.”
Over the course of several hours, the solution converts the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that make up the body into materials that can be filtered out in a wastewater treatment plant – where the water is washed away after the aquamation is complete. Next, Endswell removes the bones, grinds them into powder, and places them in an urn for the family.
Although the aquamation process is relatively unique, Beattie strives to make his urn offerings as well. He said that based on his family’s experience when choosing a urn after his father’s death, he was disappointed that many urns were mass-produced, flashy or a combination of both.
“And it just seemed odd to me that when you’re remembering and honoring this special and unique person, you wouldn’t do it with art,” he says, “something unique that fits their taste—or maybe your taste.”
Instead, Endswell clients can choose a cheaper bamboo urn package – or choose from hundreds of urns on display in the business gallery. Beattie says he’s partnered with potters from Orange County and across North Carolina to fill the space with pieces that should have more meaning.
Ultimately, Beattie says he believes working with Endswell will make even more sense to him. Although he describes starting his business as being so busy that he’s still processing his emotions about afterlife care, he says he’s coming to appreciate how his services are based on a “longer-term relationship with the community.” There are already dozens of people who have signed up for local aquamation, and Beattie says it’s powerful to hear those patrons describe their decision.
“I think that even though I never really wanted to be in the funeral business,” he says, “this business still aligns with those values of doing something that’s environmentally responsible but also community-oriented [and] focused on socially useful work.”
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