Al Lewis: 'Death-Care' Entrepreneur Provides Liquidation

There are nearly 7 billion humans, and more than 60 million will die each year.

To Ed Gazvoda this represents an unprecedented load of hazardous waste.

Bacteria. Viruses. Mercury from teeth fillings. Also, with embalmed bodies, there's formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

"There are four times as many people on the planet as there were 100 years ago," Gazvoda observes. "They've all got to go some place."

It is increasingly difficult for crematories to get permits under tightening regulations. Burials take up real estate and involve dumping valuable commodities into the ground. Gazvoda sells an alternative: alkaline hydrolysis.

Stick a body in a heated alkaline solution and tissues melt into something that looks like a hot cup of Starbucks.

Medical implants and teeth fillings can be strained off. Remaining bone fragments can be crushed and put into an urn. And what's left is so clean it could be used to irrigate crops.

Hmm. Somehow, this corn reminds me of grandma.

Gazvoda, 51, is a serial entrepreneur who left the real-estate business in 2008 to form CycledLife in Lafayette, Colo., after deciding that death was more certain than commercial office buildings.

Now he is developing a device he calls the coffin spa -- a hot alkaline bath in something that looks like a casket.

Wouldn't it be nice to have one last spa treatment? Sure sounds better than being shoved into an oven or buried in cold dirt.

Alkaline hydrolysis has been around for a long time, but mostly used on animal carcasses. The Mayo Clinic has used it on donated cadavers.

Gazvoda sold his first system to Jeff Edwards, owner of Edwards Funeral Service in Columbus, Ohio.

"A lot of families that I've come across just don't like the idea of burning," Edwards told me. "But they will choose cremation because there are no other financial options for them."

A burial service can cost more than $8,000. Cremation, $695.

Edwards invested $138,000 in one of Gazvoda's systems and began charging the same price for alkaline hydrolysis as cremation. Most families who learned about it, opted for it, he said.

"One family asked if I could hold their deceased loved one in refrigeration until I could get it up and running," Edwards said. "That told me then that the public's reception of this would be huge."

Since January, Edwards used alkaline hydrolysis on 19 bodies. But then the Ohio Department of Health suddenly put the kibosh on his new-fangled machine, citing a memo from the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors that said alkaline hydrolysis isn't "an authorized form of disposition of a dead human body."

Edwards disagrees, noting that Ohio law provides a category called "other" besides "burial" and "cremation."

He has sued to force the state to permit alkaline hydrolysis, and is lobbying for new state legislation to expressly permit it. Gazvoda has so far agreed to provide him with $20,000 to cover legal expenses.

"The fix is in," cried Gazvoda, noting the Ohio embalmers board is stacked with people who make money with crematories and embalming services. "It's just a cash cow for these guys .. They're resistant to change and they've got a great thing."

Malik Hubbard, executive director of the funeral board, said it isn't so. He told me the board doesn't oppose the method, but simply believes new legislation is required before it can be permitted.

So far, an Ohio judge has refused to grant Edwards a temporary restraining order against the state health department. A hearing on a preliminary injunction is set for April 20.

Edwards has a substantial investment at stake, but he says he is most upset about a customer who chose alkaline hydrolysis for his wife, but wound up in court instead of her funeral.

"It pains me greatly that he has to go through this," Edwards said. "His right of disposition was taken away. .. He has no choice now but to cremate his wife, who was a very green person, and he's very distraught about that."

Gazvoda says he's focused on selling coffin spas in other states. He is convinced this battle is part of the acceptance cycle of every new technology and that he will inevitably revolutionize dead-body disposal with a cheaper and cleaner process.

"If you give people a better value proposition, they choose it," he said. "Even in death care."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at or