The first question that Kale Hicks receives when describing their work as an aquamation technician is “what is aquamation?” Aquamation, also called resomation, water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is an alternative to cremation. The process involves placing the body into a high pressure tank filled with water and potassium hydroxide. This chamber is heated to 150°C or 300°F.

Pet aquamation is currently legal in all U.S. states and throughout Canada. Aquamation for humans is only legal in 20 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, although it is not necessarily available in all of those places. We chatted with Kale to learn more about their role at Resting Waters, an environmentally-conscious pet funeral company in Seattle, Washington.

This is part of the latest installment in our ongoing series, Careers in Death Care, where we chat with professionals in end-of-life and death care to provide first-hand experience and insight on working in this field.

Kale is the lead aquatory operator at Resting Waters. They have over a decade of experience in the death care field, initially at a not-for-profit funeral home for humans as a removal technician and then a funeral director intern before transitioning into the pet side of death care

Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of an Aquamation Tech

A Day in the Life of a Cemetery Programs Manager

A Day in the Life of a Cremation Technician

A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist

Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of an Aquamation Tech

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become an aquamation technician?

As with so many things in life, it was a long series of random chances that led me initially into the human funeral industry and then to a pet funeral home that specifically performs aquamation services. The short answer is that “funeral director” was one of the top three results I got from a career aptitude test in high school. The other two were “lumberjack/forester” and “religious leader”, so take that as you will.

 Being allowed into someone’s life at a vulnerable time of grief and loss is a huge responsibility… 

Death care initially called to me because of its multitudes. It’s a hodgepodge of science, psychology, theology, and about one million other facets that come into play every single day. Death is one of the most unifying parts of the human experience, and I have made so many beautiful connections over the years with people I never would have met otherwise. Being allowed into someone’s life at a vulnerable time of grief and loss is a huge responsibility, and I am surprised and grateful every day that so many people have let me into their hearts.

What inspired you to become an aquamation technician?

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

Truly, I had not considered “aquamation technician” as a career until I saw on social media that Resting Waters had a position available. I had been working at a not-for-profit funeral home for several years and loved the work but felt I had done everything I could in that role. I had even left the death care industry for about seven months and was not planning on returning. However, I knew that my former boss was good friends with the owners of Resting Waters, so I texted her asking if she thought I would be a good fit there. She responded right away with, “Kale, you would be PERFECT,” and she was right! Thanks, Nora, for the push.

While I do not believe in the supremacy of one disposition method over another, aquamation is a great option that tends to be kinder to the environment than cremation or burial. Washington and Seattle specifically happen to be very progressive when it comes to death care, and I consider myself extremely lucky that I live somewhere that broke ground by legalizing aquamation and natural organic reduction for its citizens.

What is the biggest misconception about aquamation?

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

Are there any conceptions at all? If so, I’d love to know what they are! Even with aquamation becoming more widely available for humans and prominent people like Desmond Tutu choosing it for their own disposition, most people have no idea what aquamation is. A large part of my job is educating people on the process.

It always tickles me when people ask a bunch of detailed, technical questions about aquamation. They ask “how does it actually break down the body?” and “what happens to the effluent?” I am always happy to answer them, but I have to wonder, have these folks asked the same questions about cremation and burial? Most people don’t know all the ins and outs of embalming, but seem really curious about what happens to effluent (i.e. the liquid remains) after the aquamation process.

Run us through a typical day as an aquamation technician.

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

Anyone that works in death care will tell you that there is no way to fully plan your day. Death happens all the time, and it often comes unexpectedly, so we have to be prepared to help in any situation at the drop of a hat. My position is also unique compared to other aquamation technicians in that I get to wear multiple hats. In addition to handling the operations of the aquatory, I also meet with families to make arrangements, do transportation from homes and veterinary clinics, and tackle other office administrative duties.

One of my main complaints in my experience from the human funeral industry is that all the roles were separate, so funeral directors would meet with families, embalmers would embalm, and removal technicians would handle transportation with little to no overlap. I enjoy being able to follow a case from beginning to the end, when a family comes to bring their loved one home after the aquamation is complete.

 For anyone entering the death care field, my advice is to have a good support system and solid self-care habits! Those are invaluable during the particularly draining periods. 

The day-to-day operations inside an aquatory may not be too interesting to an outside perspective. Resting Waters offers remembrance items such as ink and clay pawprints and fur clippings, so some of my day is spent collecting those from the pets that come into our care. I also plan out what each day’s aquamation cycle will look like based on the cases we have on site. With our system, each aquamation cycle lasts 20 hours, so we complete one cycle per day. However, the system has one large inner chamber, so you can create smaller individual chambers based on size. So one cycle may include three large dogs or 20 cats. In general the system can hold up to 400 pounds.

I usually bring a change of clothes with me and wear coveralls while in the aquatory. While there are beautiful, ceremonial parts of death care, we also work with caustic chemicals and dead bodies that sometimes pee, poop, and ooze. Very glamorous!

What was one of the hardest days you encountered as an aquamation technician?

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

Having worked in some form of death care for over half a decade, I’ve had my share of heartbreaking days and seen some truly tragic circumstances. I find it’s best not to dwell on the worst days and instead focus on what lessons can be gleaned from them. In especially rough moments, I often find myself asking, “Did I do everything I could to make this process less painful for that family? What could I have done differently?”

 I am a stranger being allowed into a moment of their lives. 

Sometimes, I’ve had to take those moments and reevaluate how I approach certain situations, and I’m much better at my job because of it. For anyone entering the death care field, my advice is to have a good support system and solid self-care habits! Those are invaluable during the particularly draining periods.

What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as an aquamation technician?

Most people that have worked in death care for a significant amount of time will eventually handle services for a friend or family member. Not long after I started working at Resting Waters, one of my good friends had to say goodbye to her cat. She brought her little one to us covered in flowers, and after spending some time with her, my friend and her wife followed me into the aquatory. They had elected to witness the start of the aquamation, placed their cat into our system themselves, and started the aquamation cycle.

In most situations, there is a barrier between me and the families that choose our services. I am a stranger being allowed into a moment of their lives. On that day, however, it was just me sharing space with my friend in her grief.

How can someone interested in becoming an aquamation technician start the process?

I wish I had a magic formula that I could share for how to get started in this industry, but for me it was mostly dumb luck. I recommend being open to positions and experiences that may not be exactly what you are looking for. My first step in the field was by going to (and later dropping out of) mortuary school. Even though my mortuary school experience was not what I expected (that’s a whole other story), having that experience helped open the door to the wider death care field. There are very few entry-level positions in death care. The most common is a removal technician, but many positions require at least some sort of experience, education, or certification, including working with aquamation.

What type of education or training do you need to become an aquamation technician?

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

That varies greatly depending on local laws for your region. This advice is America-centric, but most states have a funeral and cemeteries board who handle licensing for funeral directors, cremationists, and embalmers. Try looking up what your area requires and go from there! Some states require a certain amount of education or on-the-job experience while others may just have an exam to take.

In general, the world of human death care is much more heavily regulated than the veterinary death care side. Because of that, it is much easier to become a crematory operator or aquamation technician for animals than it is for humans.

What advice would you give to someone starting out as an aquamation technician, or interested in becoming an aquamation technician?

Resting Waters via Mandy Benoualid

A friend of mine who also works in death care once told me about a conversation she had with a high school student who was interested in becoming a funeral director. The high schooler – in surly teen fashion – said that they wanted to get into this work because they “hate people, I guess.” My friend patiently explained to our surly teen that all of death care is working with people. You have to be able to read what people’s needs are at any given moment because grief manifests in an infinite number of ways. What may be comforting to one person may be offensive to another.

So here’s my serious advice: Approach every person and situation with an open heart. They are putting their loved one in your care, and that is an immense privilege and responsibility.

Also, invest in a good pair of rubber boots.


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