Firm sues two rivals over Bio Cremation

Environmentally safe alternative draws competiton

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Being green need not end with death. For the true sustainability buff, limiting the carbon footprint may one day mean being dissolved, rather than buried or cremated, after shaking off the mortal coil.

That's the premise behind a federal lawsuit filed Monday by Matthews International Corp., which bills itself as both Pittsburgh's oldest company and as a pioneer in one of the newest -- and grimmest -- technologies. Matthews sued two related firms, called BioSafe Engineering and Digestor, LLC, accusing them of interfering with its marketing of a product it's calling Bio Cremation.

Bio Cremation uses a process that chemists call alkaline hydrolysis to take the water out of the cadaver, doing in a few hours the same thing that happens in a few decades in a casket. Bio Cremation faces legal, permitting and marketing hurdles, but Matthews and its competitors are guessing it just might catch on.

"If you ask somebody, would you rather be resolved by water or flame, most of them are going to pick water," said Phillip Mervis, CEO of BioSafe/Digestor, based in Brownsburg, Ind., who noted that he's a Carnegie Mellon University engineering graduate. Flameless cremation, he said, is "an alternative market for the following reasons: It's one-tenth the greenhouse gases, one-sixth the fuel energy, and no mercury emissions" as compared to going up in smoke.

Matthews, launched in 1850, is a heavy hitter in the death industry, making memorials, caskets, cremation equipment and other products. Based on the North Shore, with several facilities in the area including one in Brookline, it employs 3,800 people worldwide, according to its website.

The complaint it filed Monday said that Matthews began marketing Bio Cremation, only to become the object of a "whispering campaign" conducted by BioSafe/Digestor. The Indiana firms told potential buyers of Bio Cremation systems that if they used the process, they just might be infringing on a patent, according to the complaint.

Matthews believes that the patent BioSafe/Digestor is referring to isn't valid and is asking the court to confirm that. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office, according to Matthews, wasn't aware when it awarded the patent that the process was already in use in disposing of a variety of forms of waste.

Attorney Kevin P. Allen, representing Matthews, declined to comment on the complaint he wrote. Matthews, according to the complaint, wants BioSafe/Digestor to pay for libel, defamation and interference with prospective contracts.

Mr. Mervis said his company contacted Matthews a few years ago and offered to license to them the process now called Bio Cremation. "We approached them," he said. "They said no."

He said there's no point to Matthews suing his company at this time because neither of them is successfully selling flameless cremation -- though both are trying. He said the lawsuit is Matthews' brazen way to distract from one key point in the as-yet-embryonic market for cool cremation: "They're priced double what I am."

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542.


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