Have you ever wondered what happens to your body after death, especially if you have not planned your funeral? The Guardian ran an article in the U.K. in 2008 entitled, “What Really Happens When You Die,” and this article provides death care workers’ perspectives on their jobs and what those jobs entail. The entire article is worth reading, but a few points from that article are listed below. Remember that these interviews were conducted in the U.K., where some practices carry small differences between those in the U.S.
The General Practitioner
The good doctor talks about how people die in the U.K. Mostly it is in a bed, but many people die from massive heart attacks and lung clots on the toilet, because those fatal occurrences also include the feeling that the person wants to defecate. Special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays also provide higher death rates. This doctor feels that people want to hang on for these occasions, whereas in the state, many people feel that holidays provide too much stress for some people. He also states:
When a death is expected, the ideal place for it is at home, in a familiar environment, surrounded by family. But that is becoming a rarer event. What is becoming more common is people being rushed into hospital for what I believe is a more undignified and worse death, in an anonymous room with nurses who are busy. In my view that is a failure of health professionals, because we should be preparing the families of terminally ill people for death, showing them that it doesn’t have to be frightening and that they can do it at home. Palliative care is all about making death comfortable – you do not need to die in pain, you can die in a dignified manner. People worry that having a death at home will be horrible and traumatic for the family, but a good death is like a good birth – it is a beautiful event, not at all undignified.
Most people who come to me for a postmortem examination will have died from heart disease. In the elderly, strokes and pneumonia are also very common. The young are more likely to die from accidents, suicide or particular types of tumors one gets in youth. If a young person dies, the likelihood of them having a postmortem is high because their death is much more likely to be unexpected. Many older people who die won’t have a postmortem because they are likely to have had a known illness that has led to their death.
The Funeral Director
This interview is interesting, as the funeral director talks about various death and funeral practices. Since he works in East London, where cultural diversity is strong, he also talks about sending bodies back home and how this return is safeguarded by embalming:
A lot of my work is arranging for bodies to go back to their home abroad. About a fifth of our work is repatriation now because of the cultural diversity of the area we are based in – east London. This requires tropical embalming because the body may be kept for longer. Tropical embalming takes longer and uses stronger chemicals. Ghanaian funerals, for example, can be anything from two months to two years after death. We’ve had bodies here for three or four months before they’ve been flown home to Africa for the funeral.
This interview is interesting, as this embalmer also dresses bodies for funerals. So, talk about how to make the person look ‘natural’ is included. A few myths also are debunked here, such as the myth that your nails keep growing after you are dead – what actually happens is that your skin retracts, so they appear longer. What is shocking is the percentage of bodies that are embalmed. According to this interview:
Of the bodies that come to the funeral homes I work in, around 90 percent will be embalmed. The ones that don’t will be where the family have refused or the funeral is taking place very quickly…If a body is going abroad, the strength and amount of fluid used is increased, to ensure preservation and sanitation for a longer period.
The Crematorium Technician
This is, perhaps, the most interesting interview, as this crematorium technician talks about how this industry is regulated in the U.K.:
The cremation chamber is fuelled by gas and has to be heated to at least 750C before we can load, or “charge”, the coffin. We have to adhere to strict guidelines and everything is logged automatically on the computer – time, date, duration, emissions, smoke levels, carbon monoxide, oxygen levels and the temperature in the different parts of the cremator. The computer prints out a report and every few months these are sent to environmental health.
This person also presents a problem with ‘natural’ burial containers:
People think wicker and cardboard coffins are saving the planet, but they burn very quickly instead of creating a slow, even heat like wood. That means you need more heat to cremate the body, so use more gas. It’s also more hazardous for us, because they catch alight so quickly and harder on us because we can sometimes see the body through the wicker.
The Cemetery Operations Manager
U.S. burial practices are far different than those in the U.K., because the U.S. offers more space (currently) for cemeteries. Therefore, more people can be buried in one plot in the U.K.:
If a person buys a grave plot, they have a choice of that grave being used for anything between one and five people. For a single grave, the law requires that the coffin be buried under at least 3ft of earth, unless the ground conditions are suitable and then the shallowest a coffin can be buried is beneath 2ft 6in of soil. The ideal is light, dry soil, not wet, heavy clay. With a grave for five people, the first person would be buried at 11ft and the next coffin would go in at 9ft 6in and so on. You have to have at least six inches between each coffin in a multiple grave.
Note the distances between the coffins above and then hear what this person says below about shallow graves. In the U.S., more stories are appearing where graves are being dug too shallow to skimp on burial costs, and these shallow graves can cause problems. Also note the time it takes for a skeleton to decompose – this is a generalization based upon a body in a coffin in ideal conditions. Some bodies take longer to deteriorate (even with embalming), and in some conditions, bodies take much less time to decompose:
If a body were buried illegally in a shallow grave less than 2ft deep, the decomposition rate is only 18 months to three years. That’s banking on disturbance by small mammals and insects. Whereas, with a proper burial, with the coffin deep in the ground, the decomposition rate is much slower. The ground conditions affect the decomposition rate. If the coffin is sealed in a very wet, heavy clay ground, the body tends to last longer because the air is not getting to the deceased. If the ground is light, dry soil, decomposition is quicker. Generally speaking, a body takes 10 or 15 years to decompose to a skeleton.
The Resomation Technician
You may not be familiar with the term, resomation, or the work it entails, but it has come about thanks to interest in an alternative to cremations. During resomation, the coffin is placed in a special chamber and, instead of fire, a water- and alkali-based method is used to advance the natural process of decomposition. According to this technician:
At the moment there are only a few resomation chambers in operation in the world, all of them in the US – ours is at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota – but there has been interest from several UK councils and cemeteries about installing them. It does offer people a greener option…It [the process] breaks down the body and neutralizes everything, including the chemicals used to preserve the body, such as formaldehyde.
And, if you ever wondered what you were made of, this technician will tell you:
…nitrogen, phosphate, proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars. It’s [the remains] got a greenish-brown tint and it flows just like water.