We’ve been digging graves and burying each other for centuries. As an ancient practice, the funeral business started with the very first Homo sapiens. But what else are dead human bodies good for? We take a look at what happens to a decomposing corpse, and how our dead bodies might be useful after we die.
What’s still alive when a body decomposes?
Most of us would rather not think about what happens to our selves or our family after death. As a society, we often like to embalm our loved ones and then bury them in wooden boxes all of which can take decades to break down.
But what happens when we don’t meddle with the decomposition process? Rather being dead as a proverbial door nail, a decomposing dead body is teeming with life. Many scientists view corpses as ecosystems with vast pockets of activity, so why do we preserve and bury bodies so hastily?
What happens to your microbes after you die?
Your microbe community has a field day, once you die. This is what they’ve been waiting for all of these years. Microbes are mostly contained in the gut when you’re alive, but once you’re dead they creep out of their hiding place. This begins several minutes after you die, culminating in what’s known as autolysis, or the process of self-digestion, where enzymes start to digest your cells.
This is where the magic happens. Your self-digesting cells take over your body and, eventually, all other organs and tissues start to break down in this way. Damaged blood cells begin to spill out of broken vessels, taking over capillaries and small veins. Scientists say that this process helps determine how easily forensics teams can solve murders, and monitoring this can even support research into the health of different parts of society.
How are our dead bodies useful to science?
Sure, dying is mostly a disgusting activity. But once you start, it can also be useful to advancing the understanding of human bodies, and even the nature of fatal diseases.
When you donate your body to science, you’re not just opting out of having to make the agonising choice between burial and cremation (and covering the cost for that matter). Remember, in order to donate your body to science, you first need to call up a medical school before you die.
After that, your body might be used in those all-important first year anatomy classes, reconstructive surgery practice, or harvested for organ donation. Check out our article here on where your organs might end up after you die.
Can I donate my body to a body farm?
A lot of what researchers know about the decomposition process comes from experiments in body farms. Body farms are outdoor laboratories that monitor decomposing corpses.
They’re places of scientific research and, if you were considering taking a look, a hell of a place to visit in your spare time. Human decay is a complex process, and the environment someone died in affects the way a body decomposes. So, donating your body to a farm isn’t just the least wasteful of options available to you, it’s a way of providing vital research.
At the moment, there aren’t currently any functioning body farms in the UK. Keen not to see our green and pleasant lands strewn with decaying body parts, local groups have campaigned against the facilities. The Home Office, though, are considering them, with many UK universities petitioning for body farms.
Why don’t we repurpose our bodies after we die?
While we don’t think we should use human bodies for biofuel just yet (it’s currently illegal to use human body tissue to make biodiesel!), it might be worth us as a society thinking outside the box when it comes to what happens to our bodies after we die.
We’ve mentioned the scientific hotbed that your body turns into after you die, but there are other reasons for thinking ahead. It’s thought that almost half of England’s cemeteries will run out of space within the next 20 years, while re-using graves is a legal process that isn’t widely enforced.
In the end, whether in a cushioned wooden box six feet under or out in an open field, decomposition is going to happen. We’re just slowly decaying bodies, waiting to be released into the wider environment, after all.