What Happens to Dead Bodies
Exploring modern postmortem practices in the U.S.
The only thing that is certain in this life is that it is going to end. Death is a fate that we all must eventually meet. Death has no thoughts for our great accomplishments, acquired wealth or the immeasurable love we feel for others. In the end it is the great equalizer. But the dead cannot wax poetic or philosophize about their eventual spiritual home. What a body does after it has died is what all organic things do, it biologically breaks down and, in time, rots.
After a human body dies it goes through a process of decay often referred to as decomposition. All of the cellular functions stop, and the trillions of microscopic organisms still living in your body begin to eat away at the tissue, Caitlin Doughty, a licensed mortician and host of the Youtube channel Ask a Mortician, said. As these microscopic organisms eat away at what was once your limbs, they produce gas, which makes the body bloat and turn a greenish tint. This is called putrefaction.
“Tissues begin to liquefy and the skin blackens,” Doughty explained in episode six, using a felt cut out of herself as a visual model of the physical changes. “Since [it’s] outside, bugs are coming from the soil too. And maggots. Oh how there shall be maggots!” Doughty exclaims. From there the bugs and maggots do what they do best and eat away the skin.
The rate of decomposition depends on the environment that a body is in. “The colder the environment is, the longer the process will take. And the warmer the environment is, the more rapidly decomposition will occur,” Dr. Gregory Hess, forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner at the Pima county medical examiner’s office in Arizona, said.
But temperature is hardly the only factor that influences decomposition. “If you have a person that’s in the water, sometimes you’ll have what’s called adipocere, where you get kind of a mold growth,” Hess explained. But if the body is in a very dry climate, mummification could occur, leaving the skin hard and leathery. In humid climates, what is known as skin slippage begins earlier. The hair, skin and nails loosen and begin to fall off, exposing the muscle and fat underneath. If a body is found while at this stage, the skin around the hand can be taken off and worn like a glove in order to log the fingerprints of the remains.
After several weeks of the decomposition process, all that is left is bone and hair. Whatever the bugs didn’t want. Under two months is the “standard issue rate of decomposition,” Doughty explains in her video. But in this day and age it is far less likely that a body will be left to rot out in the wild than it is for someone to die in a hospital, followed by a funeral ceremony or cremation.
Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Approximately one-quarter of deaths annually are due to heart disease. Likely, these people were taking medication or being monitored by a doctor for their heart condition. In these cases, when they die there are ample medical records indicating that they died of natural causes and the doctor can issue a death certificate.
In cases of non-natural deaths, like homicide, suicide, motor vehicle accidents, overdoses, or if someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the local medical examiner will be called in to inspect the remains. All non-natural death must be certified by the medical examiner. As Hess explained, when law enforcement is called about a dead body, its forensic team will conduct its own investigation first.
“If they believe a crime was occurred, they will proceed based on their procedures and training. Then you get into all of the stuff you see on TV, with CSI and all this other nonsense,” Hess said.
After the preliminary investigation, an inspection team from the medical examiner’s office will carry out its own “mini investigation.” Unlike law enforcement, the representatives from the medical examiner’s office aren’t looking for evidence of a crime.
“It’s a little bit more focused on medical conditions, and cause of death, and doesn’t have anything to do with whether a crime has occurred,” Hess said.
From there, in order to certify the death, the remains must be transported to the medical examiner’s office and examined further. What happens in that examination depends on what was collected during the examination at the scene, and if there are any medical records for the deceased.
Legally, determining the cause of death takes precedent over any preferences the family may have for the handling of the remains. There are a number of things Hess might do to find cause of death, including performing cultures, looking at tissue under a microscope to find cancer or other abnormalities, sending blood samples to a toxicology lab or performing an autopsy. But first, the deceased’s medical records will be reviewed for clues as to what might have caused their demise.
Once cause of death has been confirmed, a death certificate is certified. In some states, it is illegal to cremate or bury a body without a death certificate. By now, the family of the deceased has likely been found and contacted and have made arrangements with a funeral home. This is where a mortician becomes involved. The funeral home that has been contracted to carry out the deceased’s wishes will come pick up the body from the medical examiner’s office and either bring it back to their facility to be embalmed or bring it to a cremation facility. In New York State, a crematory must be licensed with a funeral home.
Thomas Fuller is a licensed funeral director, and manager of Herson Wagner Funeral Home in Ithaca, New York. His main job is preparing the body for whatever arrangements have been made. If the family has chosen cremation there isn’t much that needs to be done. If the deceased had a pacemaker, that would need to be removed for fear of it exploding. Depending on if the family had a chance to see the deceased by the time they were brought to the funeral home, Fuller might arrange a viewing for them. In this case, even if the deceased will be cremated, they will be cleaned up and laid out, with a sheet or blanket covering everything but their face. The eyes will be closed and the mouth will be shut. Before they are cremated or buried, the deceased must be identified by the family.
Embalming, which helps preserve the remains and slow down decomposition, is Fuller’s specialty. Before filling the body with formaldehyde, he or she is undressed and given a sponge bath, washed with a disinfectant soap and his or her hair is shampooed. If rigor mortis has set in, the limbs are gently flexed to loosen them up. If you have ever been to a funeral with a viewing, you’ll know that the arms are crossed over the body, placed there very specifically by the embalmer. Fuller said what most people don’t notice is the head is usually turned slightly to the right.
“Embalming is just basically replacing the body fluids with disinfectants,” Fuller explained. In order to empty the body of blood, and fill it with embalming fluids, a small incision is made at the base of the neck. A centrifugal pump is used to pump the chemicals in and the blood out.
“Formaldehyde is a gas,” Fuller said. “You’re basically distributing the gas through the arterial system. As it moves through the capillaries, the formaldehyde gas escapes through the capillary walls into the tissue.” When the gas enters the tissue it kills the bacteria that is there and locks the proteins in, which is why the skin of an embalmed body is firm.
If the family opts for cremation, the funeral home will put the body in what Fuller called a “cremation container.” Usually this is as simple as a cardboard box, and transport it to the crematorium. Depending on the size of the body, it usually takes about four hours to fully cremate human remains.
In episode two of Ask a Mortician, Doughty explained what happens to the pieces of bone still left over after a body is cremated. “When we cremate a human body, all of the organic material that makes up a person is burned off, and what you’re left with is just the inorganic skeleton,” she explained. When a family chooses cremation it expects to receive a bag of fine ashes, not ashes and some chunks of bone. After the bones are pulled out of the crematory oven, usually referred to as a retort, they are put in a processor, also known as a cremulator. “It’s essentially kind of a bone blender,” Doughty told her watchers.
After you die your body will begin to decompose, because that’s simply what bodies do. They’re dependable like that. Embalming can slow down the process, but only for so long. Before a body is cremated, or buried six feet under, it still begins the process of breaking down. Even your ashes are just a physical representation of something that no longer exists. Your soul, if you believe in those, has as many options as there are religions. Your body has one: become nothing. Because that’s just what happens to a body after it dies.
Jamie Swinnerton is a senior journalism major who spends her spare time in graveyards. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.