The length of time a body stays in the grave depend on:
- Biological decomposition: The speed depends on environmental factors, but after 100 years most of the body has decomposed
- Grave Relocation and Reuse: Caused by lack of space, economics, and development. Most countries only reuse graves after 100 years and with the permission of the family.
Though burying our loved ones in a cemetery is somewhat common in the United States, most of us do not consider what happens to the bodies once they are buried.
In general, most graves in the United States remain untouched far longer than the amount of time it takes a body to decompose. As a result, you can rest assured knowing that your loved one will be left in peace after they are buried.
Biologic Decomposition in Graves
The first factor that determines how long a body remains in the grave is the biological time that it takes the body to decompose. The rate of decomposition is dependent on a number of factors, including:
- Cause of death: The way in which a body died can affect how quickly decomposition begins to take hold.
- Whether the body was embalmed: It is a common misconception that embalming stops the decomposition process. Unfortunately, embalming is only able to slow decomposition, not stop it completely. The chemicals used in embalming will slow down bacterial putrefaction and repel most insects. If placed in a dry environment, embalming even has a mummifying effect on a body. However, with enough time, decomposition will still prevail.
- The type of casket that the body is buried in: The type of materials used for the casket and burial vault can influence the amount of time it takes a body to decompose. For example, concrete-lined burial vaults that do not allow water and soils to enter the casket can slow down decomposition.
- The environmental conditions at the cemetery: The climate that the cemetery is in, along with the temperature, moisture levels, and pH of the surrounding soils can all affect the rate of decomposition, even if they are not coming in direct contact with the body.
It typically takes 8-12 years for an un-embalmed body to decompose to a skeleton. However, if a body is embalmed, as is typically the case in America, the decomposition process is much slower.
A typical embalmed body in a wooden casket usually goes through the following decomposition timetable:
- 24 Hours after Death: Your gut has trillions of microbes that assist in the digestion process. While you are alive, these microbes are contained to your gut by your immune system. However, within 24 hours of death, the microbes are able to break out of your gut and travel to other areas of your body.
- 2-4 Days after Death: Microbes have reached your whole body and begin to break down your organs. As they do, they produce ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which causes your body to bloat and stink.
- 3-4 Months after Death: Your blood vessels have deteriorated, causing the iron of your blood to be released, which turns your complexion brownish-black. As the molecular structure holding your cells together begins to break down, your tissues become watery.
- 12 Months after Death: Any cotton clothing has completely deteriorated by this time, leaving only the non-cotton sections of your clothing.
- 10 Years after Death: If you are in a coffin that allows moisture to enter, the fatty deposits in your body have decomposed into a soap-like substance called adipocere, or grave wax. If you are in a coffin that keeps moisture out, the chemicals in the embalming fluids, along with the dry environment, have caused your body to begin to mummify.
- 50 Years after Death: The tissues of your body have liquefied and disappeared, leaving behind skin and tendons.
- 80 Years after Death: The skin and tendons in your body have disintegrated, and your bones have begun to crack as the soft collagen inside of them deteriorates, leaving nothing but the brittle mineral frame behind.
- 100 Years or More after Death: The last of your bones have collapsed into dust. Only your teeth, the most durable part of your body, remains, along with some grave wax.
Even if your body is never exhumed after burial, your body will eventually fully decompose, leaving nothing behind in the grave.
Reasons for Grave Reuse and Relocation
The second factor that influences how long a body stays in its grave is grave reuse or relocation. As time progresses and cities and towns in the United States continue to expand, cemeteries reuse, and relocation may become more prevalent. In general, grave reuse or relocation is typically considered for the following reasons:
- Lack of Space: In areas where space is limited, or land is expensive, many cemeteries are unable to expand to accommodate the growing number of burial plots needed. In these instances, grave reuse can help cemeteries continue to serve the needs of their community.
- Economic Imperatives: For many cemeteries, the primary source of income comes from leasing burial plots. Therefore, as cemeteries fill up, they find themselves without the money they need to maintain and landscape the cemetery. While some cemeteries have begun charging monthly or annual maintenance fees or burial plot upkeep fees, others have found that turning to grave reuse can help them stay fiscally solvent.
- Development: As cities and towns expand and change, cemeteries are occasionally relocated to make room for new development.
For example, in 2012, an entire cemetery containing 15,000 graves, some of which were over 150 years old, was moved to make way for a new runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Though the families of the deceased fought the decision all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, the cemetery was still eventually moved. This is not an uncommon event.
Every year, cemeteries in the United States are moved to make way for developments.
Grave Reuse in the United States, Now and in the Future
Many countries around the world have solved their land and economic issues by reusing cemetery plots as their cemeteries reach capacity. While this may seem bleak, it is not as morbid as it sounds. Most countries only reuse graves if they both have permission from the family and the deceased have been buried for at least 100 years.
In most instances, the previous tenant of the burial plot is re-buried deeper in the plot, allowing the new tenants to be buried above them. However, in some instances, the remains will be placed in a small container and moved to another location. When this occurs, a detailed record is kept to trace where the remains are moved.
Grave reuse is not common in the United States, as most areas still have ample land available for new cemeteries. However, there are select areas within the states, such as New Orleans, where grave reuse is an intrinsic part of the burial process.
The Legality Surrounding Cemeteries in the United States
In many western countries, when you buy a burial plot, you are actually buying a grant of exclusive right of burial, which gives you the right to decide who is buried in that location for a set period of time (typically 25-100 years). When the lease runs out, you can either renew the lease or return the burial plot to the cemetery. If the burial plot is returned to the cemetery, the cemetery is then free to reuse the plot as they see fit.
The United States also uses grants of exclusive right of burial when selling burial plots. According to the case of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Inc. v. White, 513 So. 2d 1011 (Ala. 1987), when you purchase a burial plot in the United States, you are not purchasing the land; rather, you are acquiring an easement for use of the plot location.
However, unlike other western countries, when you purchase your burial plot in the United States, you are almost always buying it in perpetuity. Though some select cemeteries in the United States do use language that allows them to reclaim a burial plot, the vast majority grant you your burial plot forever.
If you want to make sure that your burial plot will not be reclaimed or relocated by the cemetery, it is important to confirm two key things:
- Are there any state laws about grave reclamation or relocation? Because cemeteries are regulated on the state level, the protections for burial plots differ slightly between states.
- Does the contract for your burial plot have any stipulations about grave relocations or reuse? If so, what are the circumstances in which the cemetery is allowed to disturb the gravesite?
Types of Cemeteries
The types of cemeteries can also affect whether or not your body may be removed from its grave in the future.
In general, there are three types of cemeteries in the United States:
1. Public Cemeteries:
Public cemeteries are cemeteries that are used by the general community. Even if a cemetery is privately-owned, it is considered a public cemetery if it sells burial plots to the general public.
Public cemetery burial plots typically cost $200-$2,000, making them cheaper than private cemeteries. However, these prices can fluctuate greatly based on the location and ownership of the cemetery.
Public cemeteries are less expensive than private cemeteries, but that price differential comes at a cost. Because public cemeteries are open to anyone, they can be more crowded, less maintained, and also more susceptible to being relocated.
2. Public cemeteries
Private cemeteries are cemeteries that do not sell burial plots to the general public. Private cemeteries are less common in the United States. The most common type of private cemetery is private family burial grounds.
In general, private cemeteries are the most expensive option, with private burials ranging from $2,000-$5,000. However, the added expense usually also guarantees better maintenance and more space for your loved one.
3. Veteran Cemeteries:
Veterans cemeteries are maintained by the state or federal government, and are open to all veterans, spouses and dependent children of veterans, select civilians who have provided military-related services, and select public health personnel.
Veteran cemeteries offer free burials and vault liners, making them the cheapest burial option for those who are eligible. Additionally, veteran cemeteries also guarantee that your plot will never be reused or moved, ensuring that your body stays in its grave forever.
The amount of time a body stays in its grave is dependent on biological factors, as well as the potential for the grave to be relocated or reused.
In general, biological decomposition in the United States is slow, thanks to our use of embalming solutions and environmentally-controlled caskets. Additionally, the chances of your grave being disturbed are relatively low. Therefore, you can rest assured that, once buried, both you and your loved ones will likely stay in your graves for a very long time.