When Ryan Cattoni was starting out in the funeral business, his dream job wasn't legal. Eco-friendly flameless cremation, the growing industry the 27-year-old funeral director wanted to go into, didn’t exist in Illinois before he started doing it.
Currently only offered at five funeral homes in the country, flameless cremation—or alkaline hydrolysis, if you want to get technical—is a body disposal process that’s being touted as greener than traditional cremation because it uses water and lye instead of fire. Writer Owen Phillips published a fascinating exploration of the alternative practice and the changing funeral industry on The Awl last week, which inspired us to reach out to Cattoni to find out more about the life of Chicagoland’s very own 27-year-old mortuary innovator.
Cattoni first learned about flameless cremation from an article that mentioned the Mayo Clinic using it. The process involves placing bodies into a machine along with a combination of water, lye and low heat, which dissolves the tissue into powder. The powdered remains come out lighter in color than the powder left over after traditional cremation as there's no burning involved. Once Cattoni decided it was a method he wanted to master, he worked with Illinois lawmakers to set legal guidelines and licensing regulations for his previously unpopulated field, and opened his flameless cremation business, AquaGreen Dispositions, in south suburban South Holland in 2012.
“When I was a junior in high school, my grandfather, who I was very close with, passed away, and the funeral director who handled his services made a very stressful situation a lot less stressful,” Cattoni told us. “He made it easier to grieve and to cope with my grandfather’s passing. So I figured if I could do that, I would really actually be making a difference with my profession.”
The unexpected career choice went over well with Cattoni’s parents, but his friends were a little more skeptical.
“They looked at me a little unusually,” he said.
His age, and the fact that mortuary science wasn’t already his family's business, set Cattoni apart from other funeral directors in the beginning. Now, his methods also set him apart, in a positive way. He works with a growing number of families throughout the Chicago area and the state.
“Families are [often] happy because they didn’t like the idea of their loved one being burned,” he says.
His eco-minded customers also like the process' significantly smaller carbon footprint in comparison to in-ground burial or traditional cremation that uses fire, Cattoni says. Flameless cremation uses fewer natural resources than burial and emits no polluting smoke because there is no fire involved. The technique also avoids sending potentially harmful chemicals that may be present in dead bodies, such as embalming fluids or even traces of toxins used in chemotherapy, back into the atmosphere like smoke and fumes from regular cremation's fire can.
“It’s the wave of the future,” he said, and it’s a wave he’s hoping others will ride with him. “I knew this was my calling. This is what I was meant to do.”
Purdom, Gwendolyn. "This 27-Year-Old Funeral Director Could Revolutionize The Death Industry." Chicagoist. July 13, 2016. <http://chicagoist.com/2016/07/13/this_27-year-old_chicago_area_funer.php>.