A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If I dug up a body, what would it look (and smell) like?

November 2, 1979

Dear Cecil:

You're going to think this is mundo bizarro, but I need to know a few things about the way a person is buried. First, is the corpse completely dressed? Shoes? Underwear, etc.? In the case of a man, is the penis altered in any way? Also, how would the corpse look after six months or a year? Would it be shriveled up or purple or what? How would it smell? Finally, how difficult is it to open an exhumed casket?

Dear Pseud:

How difficult is it to open an exhumed casket? What kind of talk is that? Promise to be good and Uncle Cecil will explain--but remember, punk, I'm watching you.

The average American corpse nowadays is buried fully dressed, including shoes and sometimes even undies, notwithstanding the fact that clothes are of no use to the deceased and that much of the apparel is never seen by anybody other than the mortician who dresses the body. The principal reason for this is that it gives the funeral director an excuse to run up the bill.

A mortician doesn't do anything to the deceased in the way of surgical tinkering other than what's required for appearances and for the draining of blood and abdominal fluids. The cosmetic part includes such niceties as gluing the eyelids shut. If an autopsy has been performed, the mortician may be required to sew the body back together, but normally he doesn't experiment with his client's organs, including their privy members, if they have one. Readers are urged to repress their deviant fantasies in this regard.

The speed with which a body decomposes is unpredictable. It's possible to preserve a corpse for extended periods, as in the case of a medical cadaver, but this requires a strong solution of embalming fluid, which results in a leathery, decidedly unlifelike appearance. Since the purpose of modern embalming--which is not required by law, incidentally--is simply to keep the body looking presentable for the wake, a dilute solution is used. This postpones decomposition for only a short time.

Under the most favorable circumstances, a body after six months in the grave would simply be discolored and possibly covered with mold. If the body has had the misfortune to have been sealed in an airtight metal casket, though, anaerobic bacteria--that is, those that thrive in an airless environment--will have had a chance to get to work, and the body will have putrefied, meaning it will be partially liquefied. The smell in such cases is indescribable. Simple wooden caskets, believe it or not, often result in more gradual decomposition.

Getting into a wooden casket, which rots readily, is no big deal, but the situation is different with one of those impregnable metal sarcophagi that most people seem to be buried in nowadays. There you may have an inner liner that's bolted shut, an outer liner sealed with cement, and the whole thing placed inside a massive concrete burial vault. Getting all this open ain't easy.

One more thing. Grave robbing is generally regarded as a form of criminal trespass and is punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Wouldn't you have just as much fun, say, collecting stamps?

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