Disposal of human corpses

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Disposal of human corpses, also called final disposition, is the practice and process of dealing with the remains of a deceased human being. Disposal methods may need to account for the fact that soft tissue will decompose relatively rapidly, while the skeleton will remain intact for thousands of years under certain conditions.

Several methods for disposal are practiced. A funeral is a ceremony that may accompany the final disposition. Regardless, the manner of disposal is often dominated by spirituality with a desire to hold vigil for the dead and may be highly ritualized. In cases of mass death, such as war and natural disaster, or in which the means of disposal are limited, practical concerns may be of greater priority.

Ancient methods of disposing of dead bodies include cremation practiced by the Romans, Greeks, Hindus, and some Mayans; burial practiced by the Chinese, Japanese, Bali, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as some Mayans; mummification, a type of embalming, practiced by the Ancient Egyptians; and the sky burial and a similar method of disposal called Tower of Silence practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, some Mongolians, and Zoroastrians.

A modern method of quasi-final disposition, though still rare, is cryonics; this being putatively near-final, though nowhere close to demonstrated.

Commonly practiced legal methods[edit]

Some cultures place the dead in tombs of various sorts, either individually, or in specially designated tracts of land that house tombs. Burial in a graveyard is one common form of tomb. In some places, burials are impractical because the groundwater is too high; therefore tombs are placed above ground, as is the case in New Orleans, Louisiana, US.[1] Elsewhere, a separate building for a tomb is usually reserved for the socially prominent and wealthy; grand, above-ground tombs are called mausoleums. The socially prominent sometimes had the privilege of having their corpses stored in church crypts. In more recent times, however, this has often been forbidden by hygiene laws. Burial was not always permanent. In some areas, burial grounds needed to be reused due to limited space. In these areas, once the dead have decomposed to skeletons, the bones are removed; after their removal they can be placed in an ossuary.

Ground burial[edit]

A ground burial is usually accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased and objects in it, and covering it over. Humans have been burying their dead for over 100,000 years of civilization. Burial practices and rites varied from culture to culture in the past and still vary to this day.[2] Burial is often seen as indicating respect for the dead. It has been used to prevent the odor of decay, to give family members closure, and prevent them from witnessing the decomposition of their loved ones.


Cremation is also an old custom; it was the usual mode of disposing of a corpse in ancient Rome (along with graves covered with heaped mounds, also found in Greece, particularly at the Karameikos graveyard in Monastiraki). Vikings were occasionally cremated in their longships, and afterwards the location of the site was marked with standing stones.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, despite the objections of some religious groups, cremation has become increasingly popular. Jewish law (Halakha) forbids cremation, believing that the soul of a cremated person will be unable to find its final repose. The Roman Catholic Church forbade it for many years, but since 1963 the church has allowed it, as long as it is not done to express disbelief in bodily resurrection. The church specifies that cremated remains be either buried or entombed; they do not allow cremated remains to be scattered or kept at home. Many Catholic cemeteries now have columbarium niches for cremated remains, or specific sections for those remains. Some denominations of Protestantism allow cremation; the more conservative denominations generally do not. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Islam also forbid cremation.[3]

Among Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some sects of Buddhists such as those found in Japan, cremation is common.[4]


Immurement of corpses is the permanent storage in an above-ground tomb or mausoleum. A tomb is generally any structurally enclosed interment space or burial chamber, of varying sizes. A mausoleum may be considered a type of tomb, or the tomb may be considered to be within the mausoleum. One of the most famous immurements sites is the Taj Mahal located in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. Both of their bodies were buried in this building.[5]

Less common legal methods[edit]

Sky burial[edit]

Sky burial allows dead bodies to be eaten by vultures on open grounds or on top of specially built tall towers away from human sight. Sky burials can be followed by optional automatic cremations of the skeletons left behind, or the bones can then be stored or buried, as practiced by some groups of Native Americans in protohistoric times. Sky burials were practiced by the ancient Persians, Tibetans and some Native Americans in protohistoric times.[6] Specifically, the conditions of a shallow active layer as well as the lack of firewood led the Tibetans to practice jhator or "giving alms to the birds". The zoroastrians in Mumbai and Karachi placed bodies on "Towers of Silence", where birds then could decompose the bodies.[7] Sky burials can provide benefits to the environment, since it does not produce air pollution and the decomposition of the body occurs fairly quickly, when compared to other forms of disposal practices.[8] Exposures, which can be a form of sky burial, are where the corpse is stripped of its flesh, leaving only the bones. The bones can then either be cremated or buried whole, as stated above.

Burial at sea[edit]

"Burial at sea" in past generations has meant the deliberate disposal of a corpse into the ocean, wrapped and tied with weights to make sure it sinks. It has been a common practice in navies and seafaring nations; in the Church of England, special forms of funeral service were added to the Book of Common Prayer to cover it. In today's parlance, "burial at sea" may also refer to the scattering of ashes in the ocean, while "whole body burial at sea" refers to the entire uncremated body being placed in the ocean at great depths.[9] Laws vary by jurisdictions.

The concept may also include ship burial, a form of burial at sea in which the corpse is set adrift on a boat.


The process of composting human corpses, also called natural organic reduction (NOR) or terramation,[10] turns organic matter into soil conditioner that is unrecognizable as human remains. It is performed by placing the body in a mix of wood chips, allowing thermophile microbes to decompose the body.[11] In the United States, human composting has been legalized in six states: Washington,[12] Colorado,[13] Vermont (from 1 January 2023),[14] Oregon,[15] California (in 2027),[16][17] and New York.[18] The first such composting facility, based Kent, Washington, accepted bodies in December 2020.[19] It developed from an earlier composting idea, formulated by architect Katrina Spade of Seattle, Washington, as the Urban Death Project.[20]

The Catholic Church opposes this procedure and laws that legalize it.[21][22]


Dissolution involves the breaking down of the body by solvation, e.g. in acid or a solution of lye, followed by disposal as liquid.

A specific method is alkaline hydrolysis (also called Resomation). Advocates claim the process is more environmentally friendly than both cremation and burial, due to CO2 emissions and embalming fluids respectively. On the other hand, many find the idea of being "poured down the drain" to be undignified.[23]

Other less common[edit]

  • Donation for study – donation to a medical school or similar – after embalming and several years of study and dissection the body is usually eventually cremated.
  • Space burial
  • In cases of war, genocide, or natural disasters including disease epidemics, large groups of people have been buried in mass graves or plague pits.
  • A body farm involves a similar method of disposal as an object of scientific study.
  • In some traditions, for example that practiced by the Spanish royal family, the soft tissues are permitted to rot over a period of decades, after which the bones are entombed.[citation needed]
  • Diamond synthesis, in which the remains of a body are converted into diamonds. [24] [25]

Means of preservation[edit]

In some cases an attempt is made to preserve some or all of a body. These methods include:

Human remains of archaeological or medical interest are often kept in museums and private collections. This practice is controversial (See NAGPRA). In the cases of Native Americans in the United States, possession of remains and related objects is regulated by the NAGPRA Act of 1990.

Preparation for disposal[edit]

Different religions and cultures have various funeral rites that accompany the disposal of a body. Some require that all parts of the body are buried together. If an autopsy has occurred, removed parts of the body are sewn back into the body so that they may be buried with the rest of the corpse.

When it is not possible for a body to be disposed of promptly, it is generally stored at a morgue. Where this is not possible, such as on a battlefield, body bags are used. In the Western world, embalming of the body is a standard part of preparation. This is intended to temporarily preserve the corpse throughout the funeral process.


Takabuti, an Egyptian mummy from the 7th century BC

Mummification is the drying bodies and removing of organs. The most famous practitioners were ancient Egyptians. In the Egyptian practices, bodies are embalmed using resins and organs are removed and placed in jars. Bodies are then wrapped in bandages and placed in tombs, along with the jars of organs.[26] Many nobles and highly ranked bureaucrats had their corpses embalmed and stored in luxurious sarcophagi inside their funeral mausoleums. Pharaohs stored their embalmed corpses in pyramids or the Valley of the Kings.[27]

However, the Chinchorro mummies of Chile are to date the oldest mummies on Earth. The Chinchorro mummification process included the Black Mummy technique, as well as the Red Mummy technique.[28]

Legal regulation[edit]

Many jurisdictions have enacted regulations relating to the disposal of human bodies. Although it may be entirely legal to bury a deceased family member, the law may restrict the locations in which this activity is allowed, in some cases expressly limiting burials to property controlled by specific, licensed institutions. Furthermore, in many places, failure to properly dispose of a body is a crime. In some places, it is also a crime to fail to report a death, and to fail to report the disposal of the body.[29]

Diseased or necrotic body parts[edit]

Certain conditions such as necrosis can cause parts of the body such as limbs or internal organs to die without causing the death of the individual. In such cases the body parts are usually not given a funeral. Surgical removal of dead tissue is usually necessary to prevent gangrenous infection. Surgically removed body parts are typically disposed of as medical waste, unless they need to be preserved for cultural reasons, as described above.

Conversely, donated organs or tissue may live on long after the death of an individual.

Criminal disposal[edit]

In some cases, a body is disposed of in such a way as to prevent, hinder, or delay discovery of the body, to prevent identification of the body, or to prevent autopsy. In such cases, the deceased is considered a missing person as long as a body is not identified, unless death is so likely that the person is declared legally dead.

This often occurs as part of a murder or voluntary manslaughter. In other cases, an individual who did not intend to cause death may fear repercussions regarding a death (e.g. by involuntary manslaughter or an accident) and may attempt to prevent discovery of the body. This can exacerbate any legal consequences associated with the death.

Other motives for concealing death or the cause of death include insurance fraud or the desire to collect the pension of the deceased. An individual may commit suicide in such a way as to obscure the cause of death, allowing beneficiaries of a life insurance policy to collect on the policy.

Criminal methods encountered in fiction and actual cases include:

  • Illegal use of conventional methods, commonly burial in a place unlikely to draw attention, or water disposal (e.g. Cleveland Torso Murderer)
  • Dissolution was used by Jeffrey Dahmer, smashing or dissolving the skeleton
  • Cannibalism (e.g. Jeffrey Dahmer)
  • Grinding into small pieces for disposal in nature, disposal via a sewer system, or use as fertilizer
  • Boiling (used by Futoshi Matsunaga and Dennis Nilsen)
  • Encasing in concrete (e.g. murder of Junko Furuta)
  • Hiding in trash or landfill (e.g. murder of David Stack, disappearance of Natalee Holloway)
  • Feeding to animals (e.g. pigs or flesh-eating insects; used by Ted Bundy and Robert Pickton)
  • Abandonment in an area where the body can degrade significantly before being discovered, if ever, such as a remote area (e.g. West Mesa murders), cave, abandoned well, abandoned mine, or a neglected or hazardous third-party property (known as a dump job); sometimes dropped in an easily discovered but out-of-the-way location to obscure the identity of the murderer (e.g. Fountain Avenue, Brooklyn)
  • Dropping into a destructive or impassible natural hazard, such as a volcano, quicksand, or crevasse
  • Destruction by industrial process, such as machinery, chemical bath, molten metal, or a junked car
  • Injection into the legitimate body disposal system (e.g. morgue, funeral home, cemetery, crematorium, funeral pyre, cadaver donation) or killings at a health care facility (e.g. Ann Arbor Hospital Murders and Dr. X killings)
  • Burning, often in a building (e.g. possibly the Clinton Avenue Five)
  • Disguising as animal flesh (e.g. abattoir, food waste, food; as Katherine Knight did)
  • Attachment to a vehicle traveling to a distant place
  • Creating false evidence of the circumstances of death and letting investigators dispose of the body, possibly obscuring identity
  • Indefinite storage (e.g. in a freezer or refrigerator, as in the murder of Paul Marshall Johnson Jr.)

Illegal disposal of bodies in water[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meyer, Richard, ed. (1992). Cemeteries Gravemarkers (PDF). Utah State University Press. pp. 137–158. ISBN 978-0874211603.
  2. ^ "Burial". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  3. ^ What is Cremation, Cremation Association of North America.
  4. ^ "Cremation | funeral custom". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  5. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Taj Mahal". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  6. ^ Martin, Dan. "On the Cultural Ecology of Sky Burial on the Himalayan Plateau" East and West, vol. 46, no. 3/4, 1996, pp. 353–370. JSTOR 29757283. Accessed 13 October 2020.
  7. ^ "BBC – Religions – Zoroastrian: Funerals". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  8. ^ Martin, Dan (1996). "On the Cultural Ecology of Sky Burial on the Himalayan Plateau". East and West. 46 (3/4): 353–370. ISSN 0012-8376. JSTOR 29757283.
  9. ^ US EPA, OW (July 28, 2015). "Burial at Sea". US EPA. Retrieved October 13, 2020.
  10. ^ Helmore, Edward (January 1, 2023). "New York governor legalizes human composting after death". The Guardian.
  11. ^ Prasad, Ritu (January 30, 2019). "How do you compost a human body – and why would you?". BBC News.
  12. ^ "Washington becomes first US state to legalise human composting". BBC News. May 21, 2019.
  13. ^ Sallinger, Marc (September 23, 2021). "Body composting begins in Colorado, after state legalizes this alternative to burial or cremation". Lafayette: KUSA. Retrieved September 24, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ "Scott signs eight bills into law, vetoes environmental bill H606". Vermont Business Magazine. June 2, 2022. Archived from the original on June 9, 2022. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
  15. ^ Arden, Amanda (July 8, 2022). "Oregon's human composting law now in effect. Here's what could come next". Portland: KOIN. Archived from the original on July 10, 2022. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
  16. ^ Chamings, Andrew. "California just legalized 'human composting.' Not everyone is happy". SFGATE.com. Hearst. Retrieved September 20, 2022.
  17. ^ Team Earth (August 19, 2022). "Tracker: Where Is Human Composting Legal In The US? - Earth". Earth.
  18. ^ Maysoon, Khan (January 1, 2023). "New York OKs human composting law; 6th state in US to do so". AP News. The Associated Press.
  19. ^ Kiley, Brendan (January 22, 2021). "Recompose, the first human-composting funeral home in the U.S., is now open for business". Seattle Times.
  20. ^ Kiley, Brendan (March 3, 2013). "The Architect Who Wants to Redesign Being Dead". theStranger.com. Seattle, WA.
  21. ^ Molina, Alejandra (July 12, 2021). "Amid Catholic opposition, states are legalizing composting of human remains". Religion News Service.
  22. ^ "Composting of Human Bodies: Memorandum of Opposition". New York State Catholic Conference. February 28, 2020. Archived from the original on December 3, 2020.
  23. ^ "A rival to burial: Dissolving bodies with lye". NBC News. May 9, 2008. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  24. ^ Bichell, Rae Ellen (January 19, 2014). "From Ashes To Ashes To Diamonds: A Way To Treasure The Dead". NPR. Retrieved February 18, 2022.
  25. ^ Roberts, Brian (August 10, 2016). "Turning The Dead into Diamonds: Meet The Ghoul Jewelers of Switzerland". Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  26. ^ "Egyptian civilization – Religion – Mummification". www.historymuseum.ca. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  27. ^ Reisner, George Andrew (1912). The Egyptian Conception of Immortality. Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 5, 6, 22.
  28. ^ The chinchorro culture : a comparative perspective : the archaeology of the earliest human mummification. Arriaza, Bernardo T., Standen, Vivien G., Universidad de Tarapacá. Arica (Chile): Universidad de Tarapacá. 2014. ISBN 978-92-3-100020-1. OCLC 1026218790.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  29. ^ "Rights and Obligations As To Human Remains and Burial | Stimmel Law". www.stimmel-law.com. Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  30. ^ Rob Lamberti (May 25, 2010). "Murdered Asian loan shark in barrel". Toronto Sun. Archived from the original on May 29, 2010. Retrieved August 6, 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rex Feral (1983). Bruce Scher (ed.). Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. Paladin Press. ASIN B00HZN9D12. / Kindle Edition. ASIN B007WU2NFG.