What Happens To A Body In A Coffin? [The Shocking Truth] (2024)

Have you ever wondered what happens to a body in a coffin after it’s placed and buried?

It’s a natural curiosity and understanding the decomposition process can provide a fascinating and even reassuring glimpse into the cycle of life and death.

In this article, we will explore the decomposition timeline, the role of coffins, embalming, environmental factors, and cultural and religious considerations that influence this mysterious process.

Order of Service

Key Takeaways

  • Coffins play an important role in slowing down decomposition, but cannot stop it entirely.
  • Environmental factors such as temperature and moisture affect the rate of decay, which is divided into five stages with distinct characteristics.
  • Cultural and religious beliefs can impact preservation after death, e.g., corpse wax formation due to flooding in German graveyards.

The Role of Coffins in Decomposition

Coffins play a crucial role in the decomposition process of a dead body, slowing down the rate of decomposition compared to a body buried directly in the earth. However, anaerobic bacteria still remain active in an air-tight casket, contributing to the decomposition process.

Coffin manufacturers are prohibited from claiming that their products can indefinitely delay decomposition, as this is simply not possible.

Wooden Coffins

Traditional and classic, wooden coffins are a popular choice for funerals.

Biodegradable and often more cost-effective than other materials, they provide an eco-friendly option, though they may be less resilient than metal caskets.

A body buried in a pinewood coffin can take between 5 and 12 years to decompose to skeletal remains.

Despite their faster decomposition rate, wooden coffins still provide some protection to the deceased person.

Some bodies in wooden coffins may develop corpse wax, also known as adipocere, a soap-like substance that forms from the chemical reaction of fatty tissues and can preserve the body, particularly the fatty tissues, for an extended period of time.

Metal Coffins

Metal coffins offer greater protection and resilience compared to wooden coffins, guarding against the elements and even being treated with chemicals to resist rust and corrosion.

Embalming a body in a metal coffin can slow down the decomposition process and help maintain the body’s integrity for a longer period.

However, sealed metal coffins may accumulate gases, leading to the potential explosion of the corpse and prolonging the process of skeletalization up to 40 years.

It’s important to note that while metal coffins can slow down decomposition, they cannot halt it completely. The long-term fate of a body in a metal coffin is similar to that of a body in a wooden coffin, with only skeletal remains left after several decades.

Embalming and Its Effects on Decomposition

Embalming is a preservation process that aims to maintain the deceased’s physical presentation for a memorial service and delay decomposition for a few days or weeks.

However, it cannot completely halt decomposition. The embalming fluid, often containing formaldehyde, eventually breaks down, rendering its long-term effect on a body in a coffin negligible.

While embalming may provide temporary preservation and a more lifelike appearance, its effects are limited.

Funeral directors often use mortuary putty, plastic forms, and lenses beneath the eyelids to create a more lifelike appearance during viewings, but the natural decomposition process will ultimately prevail.

Environmental Factors Influencing Decomposition

The rate of human decomposition varies greatly depending on the burial place and environmental factors. Bodies buried six feet below the ground decompose at a rate that is twice or even four times slower than those left exposed.

Factors such as moisture, pH and oxygen levels, cause of death, temperature, and body position all play a role in the decomposition process.

A body exposed to hot and humid conditions may decompose within a week or two, while a cold environment can preserve a body for an extended period of time.

On the other hand, a dry environment can extend decomposition for the initial year after death, while wet and moist conditions can accelerate the process. The environment around a body greatly impacts the rate of decomposition and the appearance of the body after one year.

Decomposition Stages in a Coffin

The decomposition process in a coffin can be divided into five primary stages: initial changes, bloating and putrefaction, active decay, advanced decay, and the long-term fate of skeletal remains.

Each stage presents unique characteristics and challenges, providing a fascinating look into the natural process of human decomposition.

Initial Changes (24-48 Hours)

In the first 24-48 hours after death, blood settles in areas of gravity, the body temperature decreases at a rate of 1.5°F per hour, and cells disintegrate, releasing enzymes into the body.

This stage, known as autolysis, marks the beginning of the decomposition process.

During this time, rigor mortis sets in and persists for 24-84 hours, with the rate influenced by varying temperatures.

The deceased is typically transferred to a funeral home for embalming or refrigeration, which helps to maintain the body’s appearance for a memorial service.

Bloating and Putrefaction (1-4 Weeks)

Between 4 and 10 days after death, the bloat stage begins, with the body swelling due to the accumulation of gases produced from internal decomposition.

The deceased’s body during this stage transitions from aerobic to anaerobic bacteria in terms of its composition of bacteria. This transition is part of the natural process of death.

These anaerobic bacteria release foul-smelling gases as they break down cells and enzymes, causing the corpse to bloat and putrefy. This stage is characterized by a strong odor and visible changes in the body’s appearance.

Active Decay (6-8 Weeks)

The active decay stage occurs between 10 and 25 days post-mortem and is marked by the most rapid rate of mass loss and the feeding of insects and maggots, which further assist in the decomposition process.

During this stage, putrefaction takes place, and the body becomes discolored and blistered.

Organs such as the stomach and intestines decompose, and the hair, nails, and skin become detached. Gradually, fluids are discharged from the body in a natural process known as liquefaction.

Advanced Decay (3-6 Months)

During the advanced decay stage, also known as black putrefaction or late decay, most soft tissues decompose, leaving behind bones, hair, cartilage, ligaments, and other degradation-resistant tissues.

This stage is characterized by the decay of the body’s soft tissues, with the remaining skeletal structure becoming more prominent.

Environmental factors continue to play a significant role in the rate of decomposition during the advanced decay stage, with bodies in hot or humid environments decomposing more rapidly than those in cold or dry conditions.

The Long-Term Fate of Skeletal Remains

After several years to decades, a body in a casket will decompose to the point where only the skeleton remains.

Approximately half of the skeleton becomes visible. This marks the beginning of the “skeletonization phase”.

Depending on factors such as burial location, temperature, and other environmental conditions, the skeleton may start to become visible after as little as two months or up to nine months after death.

Decay can be slowed by factors such as internment, temperature, and other environmental components.

In some cases, the body’s fatty tissues may undergo a process called saponification, forming a yellow waxy substance that can preserve the body for an extended period of time.

Exhuming a Coffin: What to Expect

Valid reasons for exhuming a body include criminal investigations, DNA tests, identity confirmation, tracking parental genealogy and relocating graves.

Such actions may provide clarity in certain matters or contribute to a better understanding of history and individuals involved.

Exhuming a coffin is feasible, but the state of the body will depend on factors such as the type of coffin, presence or absence of embalming, and environmental conditions.

After three to five days, the body begins purification, with the skin loosening and detaching from the nails. After 6-8 weeks, the body may collapse, become discolored, and reveal bones.

During advanced decay, the body emits a reddish-black hue, becoming unrecognizable from its living state.

Cultural and Religious Considerations

Different religions have distinct beliefs and procedures concerning death and interment.

For instance, Catholics and Orthodox Christians favor interment over cremation due to their conviction in the physical resurrection of the body, while Hindus cremate their deceased promptly in light of their conviction in reincarnation.

In some cases, cultural and religious practices can influence the preservation of the body.

For example, in some German graveyards, frequent flooding can lead to the formation of corpse wax, a soap-like substance that forms on the corpse from the chemical reaction of fatty tissues and preserves the body, particularly the fatty tissues, for an extended period of time.

Closing Thoughts

The decomposition process of a body in a coffin is a complex and fascinating journey influenced by factors such as the type of coffin, embalming, and environmental conditions.

Understanding the various stages of decomposition and the cultural and religious considerations surrounding this process can provide a deeper appreciation for the natural cycle of life and death.

While the thought of decomposition may be unsettling, it is an inevitable part of our existence, and understanding it can help us come to terms with the impermanence of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can a body last in a casket?

Given the right conditions, a human body in a casket can last for years before it starts to decompose. Usually, bodies take anywhere between 10 to 15 years to decay and leave behind nothing more than bones, teeth, and hair.

Thus, a body in a casket can remain intact for a significant period of time.

What happens after a body is buried in a coffin?

Once a body is buried in a coffin, the early stages of decomposition begin and the body undergoes active decay. After a few weeks, nails and teeth will fall out, and after one month, the liquefaction process will start to take place, causing the body to lose its mass.

Over time, the cadaver’s bones, cartilage and hair will be left in the coffin until they eventually decay.

Why do they cover face before closing casket?

Covering the face before closing a casket is a traditional act of respect and honour for the deceased. It is thought to protect the features of the individual while also providing closure for their family members and loved ones.

It is a final gesture of love and respect for someone whose presence will be greatly missed.

How long does it take a body to decompose?

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for a body to decompose naturally, depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, the presence of insects, and submergence in water or other substrate.

Ultimately, it takes longer for a body to decompose when conditions are cooler and when insects are not present.

How long does it take for a body to decompose?

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for a human body to decompose, depending on the environment and other external factors. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects, and type of substrate, such as water, all affect how quickly a body will decompose.

What Happens To A Body In A Coffin? [The Shocking Truth] (2024)
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