What Happens When A Body Is Exhumed? (2024)

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Exhumation, the process of removing a body from its place of rest, has many steps that need to take place. Whether due to legal requirements, the need for further examination, or personal reasons, understanding what happens during an exhumation can help provide clarity and guidance to those navigating this complex and often unfamiliar territory.

This article covers the exhumation process, what to expect during exhumation, and the answer to questions like “What do exhumed bodies look like?” or “How much does exhumation cost?”

What does the process of exhuming a body entail?

The process of exhuming a body involves several steps and can vary depending on local laws, regulations, and specific circ*mstances. Here is a general outline of the process:

  • Obtain legal authorization: Before an exhumation can take place, it is typically necessary to obtain legal authorization. This often involves obtaining a court order or permit from the appropriate authorities. The process and requirements for obtaining authorization may vary depending on the jurisdiction and reason for exhumation.
  • Notification and coordination: Once legal authorization is secured, the parties involved in the exhumation process, such as the cemetery or funeral home, will be notified and coordinated with. This includes determining the date and time of the exhumation, as well as any specific requirements or requests.
  • **Site preparation: Prior to the exhumation, the burial site needs to be prepared. This may involve clearing the area, removing any objects or gravestones, and ensuring proper access for the exhumation team and equipment.
  • Excavation: On the day of the exhumation, the grave site is excavated. Heavy equipment, such as a backhoe, may be used to carefully remove the soil covering the burial plot. The coffin or burial container is exposed and then lifted out of the grave.
  • Examination and documentation: Once the casket or burial container is removed, it may be opened, depending on the purpose of the exhumation. If necessary, the remains are examined by forensic experts or medical professionals. Documentation, such as photographs, notes, and any relevant evidence, may be collected during this stage.
  • Identification and reburial: If the exhumation is for identification purposes, DNA testing, dental records, or other methods may be employed to establish the identity of the remains. After the examination and documentation process is complete, the remains are typically placed in a new container or wrapped appropriately for transportation to the designated reburial site.
  • Reburial or other disposition: The final step is the reburial or other disposition of the remains.

Depending on the circ*mstances and the family's wishes, the remains may be reinterred in the same or a different location. Alternatively, the remains may be cremated, stored in an ossuary, or subjected to other methods of final disposition according to cultural, religious, or personal preferences.

Specific procedures and requirements for exhumation may vary, so it is important to consult local laws and regulations.

How much does it cost to exhume a body?

The cost of exhuming a body can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the location, local regulations, cemetery fees, the depth of the grave, the condition of the body, any necessary permits, and the services required for the exhumation. It is difficult to provide an exact figure since the expenses associated with exhumation can vary greatly.

Some of the potential costs involved in exhuming a body may include:

  • Cemetery fees: The cemetery or burial site may charge fees for the exhumation process, including administrative costs and the use of equipment and personnel. When it comes to exhumed bodies in caskets, the cemetery will often charge a fee of around $1,000 to at least open and close the grave.
  • Funeral home fees: If a funeral home or mortuary is involved in coordinating the exhumation, they typically charge fees for their professional services.
  • Permits and legal requirements: Depending on the jurisdiction, permits and legal requirements may need to be fulfilled, and there may be associated fees for obtaining these documents.
  • Transportation and storage: If the remains need to be transported to a different location or stored temporarily, there may be costs associated with transportation, storage facilities, and containers.
  • Additional services: In certain cases, additional services may be required, such as forensic analysis, DNA testing, or other specialized procedures. These services can add to the overall cost.

It’s helpful to contact local funeral homes, cemetery authorities, or exhumation service providers to obtain accurate cost estimates for body exhumation. They can provide detailed information based on the local regulations, services offered, and the unique circ*mstances surrounding the exhumation.

What does an exhumed body look like?

The appearance of an exhumed body can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the time since burial, the burial conditions, and the preservation methods used during the initial burial. Here are some general observations:

  • Early stages (months): In the early stages after burial, typically within the first few months, the body may still retain some recognizable features. Depending on factors such as embalming, casket type, and environmental conditions, the body may show signs of decomposition, such as discoloration, bloating, and soft tissue breakdown.
  • Intermediate stages (years): After a longer period, usually a year or more, the body undergoes more extensive decomposition. At this stage, only skeletal remains are typically present. The degree of decomposition can vary, with some bones still connected, while others may be disarticulated or scattered within the grave.
  • Advanced stages (decades or more): After several decades or longer, the body will have undergone significant decomposition. The skeletal remains may be fragmented and dispersed throughout the grave. Soft tissues, such as skin and organs, will have largely decomposed, leaving behind skeletal elements.

It's important to note that the appearance of an exhumed body can be distressing and emotionally challenging for individuals who may be involved or affected by the exhumation process. Grieving family members and loved ones should be prepared for the potential visual changes that occur during the decomposition process and seek support from professionals such as funeral directors or grief counselors to navigate this difficult experience.

Additionally, local laws and regulations may require specific protocols for the handling, transportation, and reburial of exhumed remains, ensuring respect and dignity throughout the process.

What to expect when exhuming the body depending on time

When it comes time to exhume the body, understanding what to expect can help you prepare. An exhumed body can look vastly different depending on how long it’s been since the body has been buried.

Exhumed body after 6 months

Exhuming a body after 6 months is relatively soon after the burial. At this stage, the body may still be in the early stages of decomposition. The casket and burial container are typically removed from the grave using heavy equipment, such as a backhoe. The body may be partially or fully decomposed, depending on various factors such as the burial conditions, embalming, and climate. If the body is partially decomposed, some recognizable features may still be present.

Exhumed body after 1 year

The exhumed body in a casket after 1 year will have undergone more significant decomposition. It is likely that only skeletal remains will remain. The coffin and burial container will still be removed from the grave using heavy equipment. The skeletal remains may be carefully collected, and any personal belongings or grave goods present in the burial will also be documented and collected if necessary.

Exhumed body after 10 years

After a decade, the body will have undergone extensive decomposition, and only skeletal remains will typically be present. The exhumation process at this stage is similar to that after 1 year. The skeletal remains will be carefully collected, and any associated artifacts or personal belongings will be documented and preserved if necessary.

Body exhumed after 20 years

By the 20-year mark, the remains will have undergone significant decomposition. The skeletal elements may be scattered or disarticulated, meaning they may have become separated from one another. Careful excavation is required to collect all the remains, and additional forensic techniques may be employed to aid in the identification process, if necessary.

Exhumed body after 30 years

After several decades, the body will have undergone advanced decomposition. The remains may be highly fragmented and difficult to collect. In such cases, specialized techniques, including sieving the soil, may be used to recover all the skeletal elements. The remains will be handled with great care, and if required, forensic experts may be involved to assist with the identification process.

Perfect condition exhumed bodies

Exhumed bodies are typically not found in perfect condition, especially after a significant period of time has passed since the initial burial. Decomposition processes, soil conditions, and other factors contribute to the natural breakdown of the body over time. However, there are a few exceptional cases where bodies have been found in relatively well-preserved states due to specific environmental conditions. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Peat Bogs: In certain peat bog environments with high acidity, low temperature, and limited oxygen, bodies can undergo a unique preservation process known as "bog bodies." The high acidity and low oxygen levels of the bog help slow down decomposition. The peat's chemical properties can create an environment that preserves soft tissues, skin, and even internal organs.
  • Permafrost: Extremely cold environments with permafrost, such as the Arctic regions, can also lead to exceptional preservation. The frozen conditions inhibit bacterial and enzymatic activities, effectively slowing down decomposition. Frozen bodies have been discovered in remarkably well-preserved states, with intact tissues, hair, and even organs.

It's important to note that even in these exceptional cases, the bodies are not perfectly preserved. There may still be some level of decay and deterioration, although the preservation can be remarkable compared to bodies found in more typical burial conditions. Additionally, these cases are relatively rare, and most exhumed bodies do not undergo such preservation processes.

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Post-death logistics

Last updated November 4, 2023

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What Happens When A Body Is Exhumed? (2024)


What happens when a body is exhumed? ›

Exhumation means the removal from the ground of a body or cremated remains. It also covers the disturbance of remains within a grave, particularly when a grave is reopened for burial.

Can a buried body be exhumed and then cremated? ›

Depending on the situation and the laws of your state, it may be possible to exhume a body under certain circ*mstances and have it cremated. Cremation is recommended if the purpose for exhuming the body is to transport the remains.

What happens when a human body is buried? ›

If insects can be excluded, a body will decompose quite slowly, because maggots are the most voracious flesh feeders. Although an exposed human body in optimum conditions can be reduced to bone in 10 days, a body that is buried 1.2 m under the ground retains most of its tissue for a year.

How long does it take for a body to decompose if not embalmed? ›

3-5 days postmortem: as organs continue to decompose, bodily fluids leak from orifices; the skin turns a greenish color. 8-10 days postmortem: the body turns from green to red as blood decomposes and gases accumulate. 2+ weeks postmortem: teeth and nails fall out.

Is it a sin to exhume a body? ›

Exhumation is allowed only when a body is to be reburied with family or in Israel. Christians have a more liberal exhumation policy. The Catholic and Protestant churches say bodies shouldn't be disturbed, if possible.

How hard is it to exhume a body? ›

Great pains are taken to keep coffins intact while they are lifted, which can be difficult when the deceased has been interred for lengthy period of time. Once the casket is removed, the remains are then transferred to a laboratory or alternate vessel.

Why are exhumations done at dawn? ›

It's traditionally done at dawn, but these days, with good portable lighting, it can indeed be done in the depths of the night. Exhumations are done at these times to deter gawpers and to avoid offence to funeral-goers. Also, the aim is to rebury the body within a day, so it makes sense to start as early as possible.

How long do human remains last in a grave? ›

If a body is buried in a coffin very deep the ground it could take 50 years for all the tissue to de-compose, and hundreds of years for the bones to fully decay. Around 54,000 people die in Scotland every year, yet most of us have never seen a dead body.

Does the coffin get cremated as well as the body? ›

Are coffins sold back to the funeral director for re-use? No. The coffin and the body inside are cremated together. There are occasions where the deceased or the family of the deceased has opted for using a cardboard coffin in which their loved one will be cremated.

What is the first organ to shut down when dying? ›

The brain is the first organ to begin to break down, and other organs follow suit. Living bacteria in the body, particularly in the bowels, play a major role in this decomposition process, or putrefaction. This decay produces a very potent odor, known as the smell of death.

Which organ dies last after death? ›

The brain and nerve cells require a constant supply of oxygen and will die within a few minutes, once you stop breathing. The next to go will be the heart, followed by the liver, then the kidneys and pancreas, which can last for about an hour. Skin, tendons, heart valves and corneas will still be alive after a day.

What do funeral homes do with the blood from dead bodies? ›

What Do Funeral Homes Do with the Blood from the Dead Body? The funeral home drains off the blood via the veins. They then send the blood and other fluids such as lymph into the municipal sewage system. In turn, the waste disposal officers treat these fluids before entering the town's wastewater system.

Where do body fluids go after embalming? ›

What happens to the blood and other fluid removed from the body? It is flushed down the drain! Yes, it enters the sewage system and is treated by the wastewater treatment system in whatever town you are in.

Does a body smell if not embalmed? ›

When a person dies, their body immediately begins to stiffen and discolor. Eventually the corpse takes on an unpleasant and pungent smell. Embalming helps preserve the body by preventing much of this decomposition—at least for a time.

How long does a body take to smell? ›

A detectable decomposition smell begins within 24-48 hours as putrefaction sets in and intensifies any time between 4-10 days, depending on the conditions. The onset of putrefaction is determined by the green discoloration on the skin near the cadaver's large intestine and/or liver.

Why are bodies exhumed at midnight? ›

Shortly after posting my previous answer, I saw a local news story on TV last night about a body that was to be exhumed "at midnight". According to the news article, this is done to maximise the amount of work that can be done on the body by daylight. The body can then be re-buried the following evening.

Can autopsy be carried out on an exhumed body? ›

“A body can be exhumed and you can still find the cause of death. There is no doubt about that. Even some that have spent years can be exhumed and you will still find the cause of death if you do a proper forensic autopsy. “If the autopsy is done before burial, it is okay.

How much does exhuming a body cost? ›

The costs for exhuming the grave may cost $3,000-$5,000 for the exhumation itself. If you need to have a funeral director at the exhumation, that may cost $1,000 or more. You will also need to pay for the disposal of the previous casket if you are keeping the biological remains and not the casket.

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