Speed of Decomposition
November 15, 2009 8:41 AM   Subscribe

The first dead person I ever saw was my grandmother in 1964 at the age of 8. The image of her beautiful face in the casket has haunted me all these years. I have often wondered with the passing of the decades how she would look at various times. What is the speed of decomposition with an average embalmed body. What happens in 10 years? 25 years? After 50? We have seen horror movies but what is the actual look after a few years? I know it is ghoulish, but it has been a recurring question of mine for many many years. Anyone have a good idea?
posted by Mickelstiff to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
After watching far too many episodes of "Dr. G: Medical Examiner" a few weeks back when I was sick, the one thing that medical examiners can count on is that they can't really count on how bodies will turn out when they are exhumed. Based on the coffin seals, the level of disease in the body, body size and weight, clothing the body is wearing when buried, the length of time before embalming - all of that will determine how the body starts to break down.

This wikipedia article actually does a pretty good job of describing the decomposition process, including describing what the body looks like during the various stages.
posted by banannafish at 8:47 AM on November 15, 2009

Agreeing with everything bannanafish has said, and to add that there's a chapter on decomposition in 'Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers', which is a generally excellent book.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:53 AM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

My gut feeling is that funeral homes doing embalming are chiefly concerned with preserving the body long enough for viewing and the funeral, after which, they have little or no concern. However, when you price out coffins you discover that many are sold on the basis of length of time they will keep out moisture etc that brings about decay. The more you spend, the longer, it seems, the body will be preserved. None seem to be "forever," and the mummies preserved from ancient times had the advantage of good embalming for the wealthy (royalty) and very dry climate which was essential for long-time preservation.
posted by Postroad at 8:56 AM on November 15, 2009

Warning: grue ahead.

The idea of a good solid seal keeping out decay is not precisely true. A friend of mine worked as a gravedigger for years and occasionally had to do exhumations (for police investigations, re-interments elsewhere, etc). He tells me that the gravedigger speech in Hamlet is fairly accurate for non-sealed coffins: after a decade, the body is more or less just a skeleton. On the one or two occasions he had to disinter sealed coffins, he found that the tight seal had let the anaerobic bacteria win the day, and the remains just... sloshed. It seems a great seal will turn us into soup.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:37 AM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Eva Peron was embalmed really well after her death so her body could lie in state. She was exhumed over 15 years later and I remember reading in a biography (I did a project on her in high school) that when she was exhumed, she had one bent fingertip, one folded ear tip, and her hairpins had all rusted, but otherwise she still looked pretty good. Wikipedia does not support that claim, but it was definitely published in a book- I remember re-reading that sentence many times in total disbelief.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:22 AM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman touches on this issue. (Sorry, I don't have page numbers.)
posted by jschu at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2009

I would consider not only the climate but the soil and the drainage of the particular cemetery she was buried in. Even her personal build and her condition at her death would be a factor.

As a morbid little child I used to think about this in regards to my beloved great-grandmother's face, as perfectly restful as it looked at her funeral in 1988. However, she was buried in a vault in farm country, in the summertime, in Mississippi, and today the results do not bear thinking about. My grandmother who died in 2007 was laid to rest on a hillside in rocky Central Tennessee, and the soil was frozen through when they dug the grave out in the winter. Due to the relatively dry, cold conditions, I think she would probably look very well preserved today, although God send no one ever finds out such a thing.

In case you are wondering, I am so much fun at parties.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:00 PM on November 15, 2009

Best answer: There is really no one way to answer question. As others have noted, the rate of decomposition of a body depends on a huge number of variables: temperature, soil acidity, access to the body by insects and other scavengers, moisture levels (why hasn't adipocere eponysterically commented on this thread yet?), etc etc. However, the basic agents of composition -- bacteria both inside and outside the body -- don't change. Decomposition is basically the process of your own gut fauna eating you from the inside out, with some help from some external friends. Embalming can slow the decomposition process by flushing away the majority of the bacteria and rendering other tissues "inedible," but no corpse is (typically) buried in a completely sterile state. So, while exceptions may occur (Hello, Lenin!), the average embalming only retards, not stops the decomp process. Sealed caskets can help by keeping out any external beasties, but the real agents that break down the body area already in and on the corpse when it is placed in the coffin.

Oh, and the "soup" described above is perfectly natural. It's just, in a sealed coffin, the juices from our autolyzed tissues don't have anywhere to go. My suggestion: make sure your sealed casket has lots of pillows.

And do read Stiff, its morbidly hilarious and informative.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:16 PM on November 15, 2009

Panjandrum: "Oh, and the "soup" described above is perfectly natural."

And it has a term: "corpse liquor." (A useful Yahoo Answer! Will wonders never cease!)
posted by mwhybark at 4:24 PM on November 15, 2009

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