When someone dies, what happens to the body?

Over 2.8 million people die each year in the United States. As a funeral director who heads a university mortuary program, I can tell you that while everyone’s life experiences are unique, what happens to the body after death follows a widely predictable chain of events.

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In general, it depends on three things: where you die, how you die and what you or your family decide for the funeral arrangements and final disposition.

In the immediate aftermath of death

Death can happen anywhere: at home; in a hospital, nursing, or palliative care facility; Or at the scene of an accident, murder or suicide.

A medical examiner or coroner must investigate every time someone unexpectedly dies while not in a doctor’s care. Based on the circumstances of the death, they decide whether an autopsy is needed. If so, the body travels to a county mortuary or funeral home, where the pathologist performs a detailed internal and external examination of the body as well as toxicology tests.

Once the body is released, some states allow families to handle the body themselves, but most people hire a funeral director. The body is placed on a stretcher, covered, and transported from the place of death – sometimes by chair, but more commonly these days it is carried by a minibus to the funeral home.

State law determines who has the authority to make funeral and mortal decisions. In some states, you can choose during your lifetime how you want your body to be treated when you die. However, in most cases, decisions rest with the surviving family or whomever you appointed before your death.

Preparing the body for the show

In a consumer survey conducted by the National Association of Funeral Directors in 2020, 39.4% of respondents reported that they felt it was very important to have the body or cremated remains present at the funeral or memorial service.

To prepare for this, the funeral home usually asks if the body will be embalmed. This process cleanses the body, temporarily keeping it for show and services, and restores a calm, natural appearance. Embalming is usually required for public viewing and in certain other circumstances, including if a person dies of an infectious disease or if cremation or burial will be delayed for more than a few days.

Two employees of the funeral home stand behind the funeral table
A funeral home administrator and an apprentice stand beside the funeral table.
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When the funeral director begins the embalming process, he places the body on a special porcelain or stainless steel table much like what you’d find in an operating room. He washes the body with soap and water and places it with his hands crossed on the abdomen, as you see them appearing in a coffin. Closes eyes and mouth.

The funeral director then makes a small incision near the collarbone to access the jugular vein and carotid artery. He inserts forceps into the jugular vein to allow blood to drain, while at the same time injecting embalming solution into the carotid artery through a small tube attached to an embalming machine. For every 50 to 75 pounds of body weight, a gallon of embalming solution, which is largely composed of formaldehyde, is required. The funeral director then removes excess fluid and gas from the abdominal and chest cavities using an instrument called a trocar. It is very similar to the suction tube I tested at the dentist.

The funeral director will then sew up any incisions. Clean the hair and nails, wash the body again and dry it with towels. If the body is lean or dehydrated, a solution can be injected through a needle under the skin to fill in facial features. If trauma or illness changes the deceased’s appearance, the embalmer can use wax, adhesives, and plaster to recreate the natural look.

A funeral home worker handles cosmetics used to make up the deceased.
A funeral director prepares to apply makeup on a man who died of COVID-19.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images North America via Getty Images

Finally, the deceased funeral director dresses and puts on cosmetics. If the clothing provided does not fit, he can cut it and put it in a place where it does not appear. Some funeral homes use airbrushes to apply cosmetics; Others use specialized funeral cosmetics or just plain makeup you might find in a store.

Towards a final resting place

If the body of the deceased is to be cremated without public viewing, many funeral homes require a family member to identify him or her. Once the death certificate and any other necessary permits are completed, the deceased’s funeral home is moved in a selected container to a crematorium. This may be on site or at a third party provider.

A man reaches for a crematorium with a long-handled tool.
More dead bodies in the United States are now cremated than embalmed and buried.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images North America via Getty Images

Cremation operations are carried out individually. The deceased is still in the container, placed in the crematorium, which produces very high heat that reduces the remains to bone fragments. The operator removes any metal objects, such as implants, fillings, and parts of the casket or cremation container, and then crushes the bone fragments. Then he puts the treated residue into the chosen container or jar. Some families choose to keep the remains of cremated bodies, while others bury them, place them in a suitable place, or scatter them.

2015 was the first year that the rate of cremation exceeded the rate of burials at a coffin in the United States, and the industry expects this trend to continue.

When choosing a ground burial, the casket is usually placed in a concrete outer burial vessel before lowering it into the grave. Chests can also be buried in above-ground vaults within buildings called mausoleums. The tomb or crypt usually contains a tombstone of some kind bearing the name and other details of the deceased.

Some cemeteries have environmentally conscious “green” burial spaces where an undisturbed body can be buried in a biodegradable container. Other forms of final disposition are less common. As an alternative to cremation, the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis can reduce the remains to bone fragments. Composting involves placing the dead in a container with organic matter such as wood chips and straw to allow the microbes to naturally break down the body.

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I have seen many changes over the course of my funeral service career, which has spanned over 20 years now. For decades, funeral directors were predominantly male, but now the national funeral school enrollment rate is about 65% female. Cremation has become more popular. More people are planning their funerals in advance. Many Americans have no religious affiliation and therefore choose a less formal service.

Goodbyes are important to those who stay, and I’ve watched many families drop a party and later regret it. A dignified, meaningful, and appropriate farewell to share memories and comfort each other honors the life of the deceased and facilitates healing for family and friends.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. Written by: Mark Effley, Wayne State University.

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Mark Effley is affiliated with Volunteer with the National Association of Funeral Administrators, the Association of Michigan Funeral Administrators, the American Council on Funeral Services Education, and the International Conference of Funeral Service Examination Boards.


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