-4
$\begingroup$

Societal considerations aside, when all the remaining relatives of a particular gravesite have all disappeared or forgotten about a certain grave, is it viable/hygienic to remove or repurpose old gravesites as something new?

Not all burial traditions use airtight coffins that wouldn't let the body decompose — Muslim burial tradition would wrap the body in a plain sheet of cloth and then bury.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think it's a really interesting question, but I also struggle to see the biology in the question... religions and societies can decide on things but if you want to evoke biology you're probably going to have to come up with an operational definition for the thresholds you are asking about. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause May 28 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I'm asking from the perspective of hygiene, mostly. I'm really nothing related to biology, but I sent this question to a bio graduate friend of mine and she mentioned soil ecology, for example. $\endgroup$ – jonvyltra May 28 at 11:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If the question is really asking "how long under [some set of environmental conditions] does a human corpse take to decay fully?", then I think it's biology. $\endgroup$ – kmm May 28 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @kmm How does one define "fully"? $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause May 28 at 15:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To weigh in on this: it totally depends on soil type, moisture, and oxygen levels of medium (not tomention burial practices as you mention). See bog bodies as an extreme example -- preserved bodies after 10k years! $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist May 28 at 18:07
4
$\begingroup$

8-10 years

Keep in mind digging up bodies once they are nothing but bones was common practice at one time, look up the catacombs of Paris or just Ossuary.

Human remains are not actually considered infectious once they have rotted away, not that they have much risk before that, but the smell of a corpse that still has soft flesh is remarkable unpleasant, which is why waiting until they are dry bone was common.

How long it takes to reduce a body to a skeleton is controlled by the site of burial and climate. Forensics uses a baseline of 8-10 years for a six foot deep burial in most temperate soils, much longer if buried in a casket. Note changing the conditions of burial can change this time from a few weeks to never because it mummifies.

source

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

I think the answer to this question is open for debate, as it depends on a lot of factors.

To start with an extreme, King Tutankhamun died about 3,000 years ago. The opening of its burial grounds was attended by Lord Carnarvon, a British sponsor of archaeology in Egypt, who died shortly after attending the tomb's opening. While at first it spawned superstitious beliefs like 'Tut's curse', nowadays researchers believe it was, perhaps, caused by various bugs found in the tomb, namely Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. These molds can cause allergic reactions, including lung bleedings. The toxins can be particularly harmful for people with a weakened immune system. Other bugs, like the respiratory-assaulting bacteria, Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus have been found as well on the walls of the tomb (source: National Geographic).

However, food items were stored alongside a host of other sacramental stuff, so Tit's tomb was anything but a 'clean' grave. A normal grave hence may, or may not lack these contents and hence its bugs. However, there are many, many more variables in play, among them the type of coffin used to bury the corpse, the type of grave, type of soil, humidity, temperature etc. etc., which all interact and can affect the duration of the various stages of decomposition (source: Wikiepdia). Up until the last phase (skeletal phase), active decomposition is taking place, and hence many bugs are around, which would raise hygienic issues.

Lastly,cleaning up graves is quite regularly performed, and a period of four decades is used on a regular basis (source: BurialPlanning.com).

In all, I guess a definitive answer to this question doesn't exist, other than longer than 3,000 years....

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ People do remove graves much, much sooner than that, for example: thisamericanlife.org/689/digging-up-the-bones/act-one-6 but I don't really think this is a "biology" question per se. I won't use my close vote but I do think the OP needs some clarification to make this anywhere near biology. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause May 28 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause yes wasn't done yet. The Q needs clarification, which my answer hints at. Close away. Up to you. It's a broad question, but an interesting one imo. $\endgroup$ – AliceD May 28 at 7:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Oh indeed, lots of interesting concepts here but...harder to frame it in biology :) I find it really fascinating from an anthropological and archaeological perspective that different human societies have completely different ideas of what "complete" burial and decomposition means. In Greece it seems the timeline has been shrunk down to <3 years, and is driven by mostly practical concerns. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause May 28 at 7:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause wow, that's really short! Note that I'm pretty biased in my close- and answer-behavior to the type of question. Questions on sensory systems I practically never close, I'm only human. So feel free to let that mod hammer swing... $\endgroup$ – AliceD May 28 at 8:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Oh definitely - I suggest listening to the linked podcast which is fun regardless :) the lack of decomposition seems pretty central to the overall experience...and yet it is all pretty separate from the ideas expressed in OP here :) $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause May 28 at 8:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.