One Solution for Eternal Preservation

A photo taken in 2003 of the crash site where the Big Bopper, Richie Valens and Buddy Holly died, along with their pilot, in 1959.

A photo taken in 2003 of the crash site where the Big Bopper, Richie Valens and Buddy Holly died, along with their pilot, in 1959.

Do you want to be preserved for eternity once you’ve died? One solution to this problem of eternal preservation was discovered by Dr. Bill Bass (creator of the Body Farm) in 2006, when J.P. Richardson, III asked Dr. Bass to examine the body of his father upon exhumation. Richardson’s father – Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. – was known as the “Big Bopper,” or the musician/songwriter who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens in 1959.

The reason Richardson exhumed his father’s body was that he wanted to move that body – and the body of his mother, who also was deceased by 2006 – to another cemetery. But, Richardson had questions, such as whether his father had survived the plane crash only to die after the impact and before the plane and the bodies were discovered. Dr. Bass was hired to answer that question and more, but Bass faced some problems after the Big Bopper was exhumed. The problems revolved around a body that was, for all extents and purposes, almost perfectly preserved after forty-eight years underground.

Although the coffin was buried in a cemetery located below sea level and the water filled the grave as quickly as the workers could uncover it, the Big Bopper was not under water. Several factors contributed to this preserving environment:

  • The Big Bopper’s casket was sealed in a rust-resistant steel vault made from galvanized steel one-seventh of an inch thick. Although the vault had been partially and, at times, totally submerged for much of the past half-century, the seal prevented the water from touching the upper reaches of the Big Bopper’s casket.
  • Although the casket showed signs of rust, the seal held superbly.
  • The Big Bopper had a fan in the funeral home, because he received the utmost care and a true embalming as opposed to a “cosmetic” embalming procedure. The latter procedure is conducted mainly to keep a body looking and smelling good for the brief time required to arrange and conduct a burial service. The full embalming procedure is much more time consuming and elaborate.

The problem with a well-preserved body was that it presented a difficult situation for Dr. Bass to examine the bones. So, he ordered X-rays instead, and he was able to confirm that the Big Bopper probably could not walk away from the crash site, as he had numerous broken bones, including compound breaks and fractures in both legs. Additionally, he had neck and facial injuries that indicated that he may have died upon impact.

While the embalming procedure and casket demand more explanation, the vault is the focus for the moment. According to Dr. Bass in his book, Beyond the Body Farm, where he describes the Big Bopper’s exhumation and examination, there are two basic types of vault designs that reflect two types of materials. One type is concrete and the other is steel.

The steel vault, according to Bass is seal at the bottom. To describe how this seal works, Bass states:

To simulate the way a steel vault keeps water out, take a clear drinking glass, turn it upside down, and submerge it completely in your kitchen sink. Water will rise inside the glass as you begin to submerge it, but then – in my own kitchen-sink experiment, after rising only a fraction of an inch – it stops, held at bay by the air pressure inside the glass. A diving bell works on this same principle. So the advantage of a steel vault is that it doesn’t rely on a perfect seal or gasket to keep water out; it relies on a simple principle of physics: as long as the air pressure is greater than the water pressure, the air keeps the water out.

You can learn more about this type of vault by visiting Clark Grave Vault‘s Web site, where that link shows their depiction of the difference between a metal and a concrete vault. But, nothing is perfect, and the Big Bopper might not have been so well preserved if his vault:

  1. Was carried away in a flood – being lightweight and air-filled, these metal vaults can bob to the surface and be carried downstream for miles. This is how more than 1,200 faults were carried away from Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.
  2. Was corroded and allowed water into the top of the vault. When a hole is created at the top of the vault, all guarantees are off – that vault will fill with water as pressure within the vault decreases.

Stay tuned to learn more about embalming methods, concrete vaults and other issues surrounding the possibilities discovered by Dr. Bass and his stint with the Big Bopper.

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