If the deceased was pulled from the water immediately after drowning, an open casket service is possible. However, a closed casket is recommended if the deceased’s body was submerged for a long period of time.
The Effects of Drowning on the Body
Submersion of a body in water can cause a number of postmortem changes, including:
- “Washwoman’s hands:” Wrinkling of the skin, primarily in the hands, feet, and face
- “Goose flesh:” Also known as cutis anserine
- Vascular marbling
- Dark discoloration of skin and soft tissue
- Sloughing of the skin, particularly of the hands and feet, if immersion is prolonged
If a person drowns in a natural body of water, such as a stream, lake, or ocean, animal predation may also occur, which is where an animals has tried to feed off it.
What Happens During Drowning
Drowning is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” When a person is underwater and the body has been deprived of oxygen for too long, the low concentration of oxygen in the blood triggers the need to take a breath.
When that breath is taken underwater, large amounts of water rush towards the airways. The water entering the airway will cause the larynx to spasm and close, preventing water from reaching the lungs. However, this also prevents any oxygen from reaching the lungs.
When a person fatally drowns, the body initially floats head down in the standard “drowning position.” The lungs have not yet filled with water, and are therefore the most buoyant part of the body.
After death, the larynx releases, and water fills the lungs. The lung tissue acts as a sponge and soaks up large amounts of water, causing the body to slowly sink (lungs of drowning victims are observed to be much large during the autopsy).
If a body remains in the water, putrefaction via bacterial activity will eventually produce gases, which will once again cause the body to float.
Reasons to Choose a Closed Casket
The ability to have an open-casket funeral after a drowning occurs is primarily dependent on how long the body of the deceased was submerged in the water.
For cases where the deceased was either pulled from the water immediately after drowning or died from drowning-related complications after being pulled from the water, an open casket is an acceptable option.
However, most morticians recommend a closed casket funeral if the deceased was immersed in water for a long period of time.
Though morticians are typically able to hide the physical changes caused by death, the changes caused by drowning are typically more pronounced and harder to cover. Typical changes that are encountered when a body is submerged in water for a period of time include:
1. Discoloration of the Face:
As discussed below, drowning victims initially float face down, which causes blood to pool in the face. This can cause increased swelling and dark discoloration that is hard to hide.
2. Bloating of the Body:
When a body is immersed in water, the hydraulic gradient between the body and surrounding water will cause the body to slowly gain water weight. Bloating will be more severe the longer the body is in the water.
Hydraulic gradient is where water seeps into the body from outside it, because the water outside the body has a greater pressure than what is in it.
3. Skin Appearance May Appear Unnatural:
Just like your fingers look “pruney” after a long bath, skin on a body will wrinkle and expand when left immersed in water for a long period of time. Time spent immersed may also change the skin color and the skin to eventually slough off the body.
In addition to the physical changes caused by drowning, drowning can also significantly delay the scheduling of a funeral.
In the United States, autopsies are almost always required for suspected-drowning victims. As such, funerals for drowning victims are typically held several weeks or months after the body is found. Though the mortician can cover the marks from the medical examination, the delay may cause subtle changes to the body that are harder to hide.
While many of these changes may not be very noticeable to friends or acquaintances of the deceased, they can be apparent, and even jarring, to loved ones.
While an open casket can bring a level of closure to mourners, seeing a body that has undergone these changes may do more harm than good for those in attendance. As such, before making any decisions, it is important to consider what is best for the family and close friends at the funeral.
Closed Casket vs. Open Casket
The decision between an open and closed casket for a funeral can be a difficult one. Several things to consider when deciding whether an open casket is right for you where the person passed away from drowning include:
1. Condition of the Body:
As discussed above, it is not always possible to display a body based on the nature of their death. Most of the time, the funeral director and mortician will tell you if a closed casket is necessary.
2. Some Religions Don’t Allow Open Casket
Some religions, such as certain sects of Judaism and Islam, dictate that an open casket is not appropriate. As such, it is important to consider the religion of the deceased, as well as those attending, when making the determination.
3. If Funeral Is Delayed, the Body May Not Be Presentable Anymore
If a funeral is delayed for legal or personal reasons, the body of the deceased may no longer be presentable for an open casket. If your funeral will occur at a later date, it is advisable to talk to the funeral director about open casket options.
4. Open Casket Is More Expensive
An open casket requires the mortician to spend a significant amount of time preparing the deceased for viewing. As such, open casket funerals tend to be more expensive.
If you are planning a funeral on a budget, switching to a closed casket ceremony is an easy cost-saving option.
Drowning Death Statistics
In the United States, drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning each day in the United States.
Approximately 20% of unintentional drowning deaths involve children aged 14 or younger.
According to the Red Cross, drowning is responsible for more deaths among children aged 1-4 in the United States than any other cause, except birth defects.
Among those aged 1-14, drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional death, only behind motor vehicle crashes.
Based on the prevalence of drowning-related fatalities in the United States, it is unsurprising that morticians are well-accustomed to requests for open casket ceremonies for drowned individuals.
When choosing between an open casket and closed casket funeral for someone who has drowned, it is always a good idea to get advice from your funeral home. The funeral director and mortician will be able to help you decide whether an open casket is the right decision for you.