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.
One of the more modern methods of final disposition, though still rare, is cryonics.
Commonly practiced legal methods
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. 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.
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. 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 are 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.
Among Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some sects of Buddhists such as those found in Japan, cremation is common.
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.
Less common legal methods
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. 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. 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. 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
"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. 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.
Composting, or Natural organic reduction (NOR), turns organic matter into soil conditioner that is unrecognizable as human remains. For human corpses, it can be performed by placing the body in a mix of wood chips, allowing thermophile microbes to decompose the body. In the United States, this method is legal in Washington State, Colorado and Oregon. The first such composting facility, based Kent, Washington, accepted bodies in December 2020. It developed from an earlier composting idea, formulated by architect Katrina Spade of Seattle, Washington, as the Urban Death Project.
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.
Other less common
- 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.
- Dismemberment, in which the body is divided and different body parts are dealt with separately; for example in the case of the Habsburg royal family as well as the display of the relics of various saints.
- 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.
Means of preservation
In some cases an attempt is made to preserve some or all of a body. These methods include:
- Mummification; the most well-known examples are from ancient Egypt
- Taxidermy; an extremely rare form of preserving a human body. Famous historical examples include an African tribesman, and sideshow performer Julia Pastrana.
- Plastination: The preserved (embalmed) body is prepared by dissection or slicing and fluids are replaced with inert plastic for anatomical study by medical students or display in museums. This technique was pioneered by Gunther von Hagens of the Institute for Plastination.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 still feel guilt about 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
Disposal of this type happens for various reasons, including the main difference between a burial at sea and a burial on land: the difficulty in recovering the body. Sometimes this difference is desired to dispose of bodies outside of the law.
Disposal of evidence
While a corpse properly buried at sea is unlikely to reappear, many criminals are unable to ensure the permanent disposals of a body, and evidence of the body may reappear. This is rarely as spectacular as the freshly caught shark in the Sydney Coogee Aquarium that vomited up a surgically separated human arm, leading to a murder investigation. That victim was determined to be James Smith, but the three murder suspects were acquitted.
Many criminals dispose of bodies in a river, hoping that the body is carried away. However, this method will most likely lead to a quick detection of the body, because the body gets entangled at the side of the river, or stopped at a dam, or is simply seen floating by others. A disposal in large lakes or oceans is more likely to hide the body, but a decomposing body can develop a strong positive buoyancy due to the decomposing gases being trapped underneath the skin. This may bring the body up to the surface, or at least increase the movement across the ocean floor due to wave actions. Many bodies have washed up at the shore. Bodies have also been discovered in the nets or lines of fishermen, and occasionally, bodies are also discovered by divers.
Very cold water with little oxygen may even preserve bodies, allowing for an easier identification, as for example Margaret Hogg, the Wasdale Lady in the Lake in Wast Water lake in the Wasdale area (see National Trust Properties in England). She was found after eight years, with her body preserved like wax.
- Gary Ridgway (born 1949), the Green River Killer, disposed most of his bodies in or near the Green River.
- In the Shark Arm case, James Smith's murder was discovered when a shark in the Sydney Coogee Aquarium vomited up his severed arm in 1935.
- Anne Marie Fahey, scheduling secretary for then Delaware Governor Thomas Carper, was killed by prominent Delaware attorney Thomas Capano, and her body was dumped inside of a large "Igloo" cooler into the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast with the help of his brother, Jerry. However, because the cooler would not sink, despite Capano repeatedly shooting holes into it with a shotgun, the body was removed and weighted down with an anchor to make it sink into deeper water. The body was never recovered, but the cooler was later found washed up onshore by fishermen, and remains today in the evidence locker of the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware.
- Emmett Till's body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi in 1955.
- John Roselli's body found in Miami Florida Bay in 1976.
- Margaret Hogg, the Wasdale Lady in the Lake, was murdered 1976, and found 1984.
- Laci Peterson, the wife of Scott Peterson, murdered 2002 and found on the shore of the San Francisco Bay.
- Quang Lu, a Thornhill, Ontario loan shark was found entombed in a rusty steel barrel full of concrete in Lake Ontario after police received an anonymous tip.
- Serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer disposed their victims' bodies in the Des Plaines River.
- The 1990s film Amistad, depicts a group of slaves being chained and then thrown alive into the sea to die by drowning. This method was applied by crews of slave-trade ships.
- Kim Wall was murdered in 2017 by Peter Madsen, who killed and dismembered her on board of one of his midget submarines.
- Sunny Ang Soo Suan (1939-1967), one of the most notorious murderers in Singapore. He murdered his girlfriend Jenny Cheok Cheng Kid for her insurance during a scuba diving trip in 1963 near Sisters' Islands, Singapore, by engineering her death as accidental. He was later convicted of Cheok's murder and sentenced to death based on circumstantial evidence in 1965. Ang was subsequently executed by hanging in 1967. Cheok's body was never found.
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