A considerable percentage of the population in the United States elects to be buried as the means of the final disposition of their remains after death. With that noted, although this is the intended course of the disposition of mortal remains for many people, a good percentage of the population really doesn’t know what happens to a human body after burial

Misconceptions About Embalming

Before diving further into what happens to a human body after burial, a discussion of embalming is an important preliminary matter. A persistent and fairly pervasive misperception surrounds embalming. If the proverbial man or woman on the street were to be asked whether embalming stops the decomposition process, they would respond “yes.” As much of a cliché as this is, the typical layperson would state that embalming stops the human decomposition process altogether. In reality, embalming slows significantly but does not stop decomposition. 

Inasmuch as a considerable percentage of human bodies are embalmed after death, understanding the true nature of this treatment is vital. Because of the realities and limitations of embalming, the decomposition process does slowly move forward as a general rule following the burial of a human body. 

The State of Human Remains in a Casket Over Time

Once a person’s embalmed body is placed into a casket and interred, a slow process carries onward that impacts the remains. The progress of this process is contingent upon immediate environmental factors, particularly the state of the atmosphere within the confined space of a casket. 

Within about a half a year from burial, the skin of a deceased person in a casket begins to turn a brownish-black color. This occurs because even with embalming, blood vessels throughout a body deteriorate. This causes iron remaining in the vessels to spill out into the body. As it oxidizes, the released iron becomes brownish-black in color. 

At about this same point in time, the molecular structures of the cells in a casketed body break apart. Although an unpleasant image, this results in the collapse of tissues like the skin, turning these tissues into what often is described as a “watery mush.”

The next noticeable milestone is at about the one-year mark. At this the, clothing items made of cloth on a body begin to disintegrate. Bodily fluids released during the initial year of burial cause the disintegration of clothing items made out of material like cotton. Some other types of fabric are more durable. 

Nothing much happens to a casketed body during the one-year and 10-year mark. At about a decade after being placed in a casket and buried, the fat contained in a body’s buttocks and thighs turns to what is described as a soap-like substance. This substance commonly is referred to as grave wax. This occurs if the casket created a wet, low oxygen environment.

In some cases, a casket is drier inside and has less oxygen. When that occurs, at about the 10-year milestone, the remains will be on a course to mummification. 

After about 50 years, all tissue is liquified. At the 80-year mark, only bones typically are left in a casket. Finally, after about a century from the date of burial, the bones will have disintegrated into dust. 

Bursting Casket Incidents

In this day and age, a significant percentage of burials take place in community mausoleums at cemeteries. A persistent issue with burial in an above-ground community mausoleum is what is referred to as a bursting casket or exploding casket

Without diving too deep into the science of it all, when a person is buried in a quality, well-sealed casket in an above ground community mausoleum, the possibility for a bursting casket exists. A sealed casket becomes something of a pressure cooker. Over time, gas accumulates inside the casket to the point that it bursts or explodes. When that happens, fluids produced as a result of decomposition end up leaking from the casket. 

Presently, there exists no accurate information about the true extent of bursting caskets. Cemeteries and even funeral homes attempt to downplay the issue, even provide some false information about it in some situations. 

Un-Casketed, Un-Embalmed Human Body

If a human body is exposed and not casketed or embalmed, the decomposition process presents a health hazard to any person that might come into contact with the remains. A decomposing body contains and releases what are known as pathogens. Pathogens are different types of organisms, including bacteria, that have the potential for causing illness and disease in humans. 

Although a person is not likely to come upon a decomposing body, such an encounter can occur. For example, if a family member that lives alone dies alone, his or her remains might not immediately be discovered. This type of situation technically is known as an unattended death or undiscovered death. When found and depending on the length of time the remains have been decomposing, the death scene may be contaminated with harmful substances. Once the remains have been removed, a professional death scene cleanup company should be retained to remediate the situation in a safe and thorough manner.