Many people have non-organic or artificial parts of their bodies, whether it is an artificial hip or a metal filling in teeth. These things are so natural for most people that they often forget they have them. But have you ever wondered what happens to the various components of a body when a person dies? This article looks at what happens to organic tissue and bones as well as non-organic and artificial implants after a person dies, with various final disposition options.
Regardless of the type of final disposition, whether it is burial, cremation or aquamation, all organic matter (soft tissue such as skin, muscle, fat, organs, etc.) will eventually break down. However, how it breaks down is slightly different between disposition types.
After death, all living things, including human bodies, go through four natural decomposition stages that include the following processes:
Decomposition can be halted at the first stage--autolysis--using modern preservation techniques.
Autolysis starts immediately after death and typically lasts for 24 to 72 hours. The body shuts down and the process of rigor mortis sets in. That is the stiffening of body muscles due to chemical changes.
In a funeral setting, the body is picked up by a provider and sheltered (refrigerated) until funeral arrangements are made. The remaining stages of decomposition occur when a body is buried or left unsheltered. However, funeral practices such as embalming slow this process for a short period of time, usually up to a week or so.
Embalming is a chemical form of preservation that stalls decomposition, making the body suitable for funeral viewings or ceremonies.
After burial, the body goes through the remaining stages of decomposition. Because the body is protected by a casket and layers of soil, the natural decomposition process is slowed.
After autolysis, microorganisms in the body digest tissue, leak enzymes and produce gas that causes the body to bloat and skin to become discoloured. After that, organs, muscles, and skin become liquified, and eventually, all that remains is hair, bones, and cartilage.
During flame cremation, organic matter in the body is consumed as it is exposed to extreme heat. Because the body contains mostly water, evaportation reduces base elements to ash, which consists largely of bone fragments.
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Aquamation, also known as water cremation, uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis to reduce the organic matter to a greenish wastewater and bone fragments.
The stages of decomposition may take several years when a body is in a coffin. However, all remaining tissue in the body will liquify and decay over time. By the end of the skeletonization stage, all that remains are disarticulated bones.
Bones eventually become dry and brittle and will degrade into dust. Acids in the soil take about 20 years to completely dissolve the skeleton if a body is placed directly in it. This takes longer when protected by a casket. The body is also shielded from natural elements that can speed up or slow down decomposition. Similarly, certain soil conditions can preserve bones for hundreds or thousands of years.
During flame cremation, all organic matter in the body is incinerated. However, not all of the body's components are destroyed.
Human bones are made mainly of soft tissue called collagen and calcium phosphate. Since collagen is a soft tissue, it will not withstand the extreme conditions of flame cremation.
However, calcium phosphate helps strengthen and harden bones, so that it will remain in the bone fragments left after the cremation process. Therefore, the chemical composition of human ashes is mostly calcium phosphate with small amounts of minerals like potassium, sodium, and carbon in the form of carbonate.
These bone fragments are pulverized by funeral staff to create a coarse, grey powder. However, the colour of the ashes can vary depending on cremation conditions. During cremation, the body is exposed to extremely high temperatures, but bones need to reach a temperature higher than 800 degrees Celsius to produce lighter-coloured ashes. Bones reaching temperatures under 760 degrees Celsius will likely be black or a dusty brown.
Organic matter is reduced during aquamation, and that includes collagen in bones. The remaining bone fragments consist of calcium phosphate and small amounts of other minerals. However, the consistency and colour of aquamation ashes after fragments are pulverized differ from ashes produced during flame cremation.
This is because the bones do not go through the same chemical process as flame cremation. Bones from flame cremation are often darker in colour due to combustion reactions and carbon discolouration that occur when bones are exposed to flames and extreme heat.
Extreme heat is not used during aquamation, so bones remain closer to their original shade throughout the process. The bones are dried in an oven, and when cooled, they are pulverized by funeral staff into a white or tan powder with a smooth consistency. There is also 20 to 30 per cent more ash produced during aquamation.
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As the name would suggest, non-organic and artificial implants are appliances placed by a surgeon or dentist. Examples include:
These are typically made from materials such as metal or plastic. As such, many do not go through the same stages of decomposition. Metal components are not destroyed by funerary practices. For this reason, there are specific procedures providers must take to handle these materials to minimize health and safety concerns. However, these practices vary depending on the process and local rules and regulations.
In most cases, there is no need to remove implants when a body is buried, as there are no major health concerns associated with the remains. However, some local regulations may recommend or require removal. They can be removed and recycled. Nonetheless, this is often not a requirement with a traditional burial.
However, if you opt for a green burial, this will likely be recommended or required. The goal of a green burial is to reduce the environmental impact of the funeral, and return the body to the earth more naturally. Much of the materials used for implants are not organic and will not decompose naturally (or at all) over time. They may leach chemicals into the ground, so removal of implants align with green burial principles.
When it comes to cremation, there are often more regulations when it comes to the removal of implants. Some devices pose a safety risk to the crematorium or hydrolysis facility staff. Nonetheless, not all require to removal. This varies depending on the type of cremation (flame cremation or aquamation) and local laws.
Before flame cremation, implants must be removed. They include pacemakers, defibrillators, and any other implants that are equipped with a battery, as they can explode in the cremation chamber, which can be dangerous for crematorium staff and damaging to equipment.
Radioactive implants, such as those used for cancer treatments, are also dangerous. For this reason, many facilities will refuse cremation if a body has received these implants within the last five or so years. In this case, a funeral provider will help families choose alternative arrangements.
All other implants remain in the body during cremation. The cremation chamber reaches temperatures of 760 to 980 Celsius (1400 to 1796 F). These temperatures incinerate organic matter, leaving bone fragments and metal behind (as they require higher temperatures to be destroyed). After a cooling period, crematorium staff will use a magnet to remove the metal from the remaining implants. These, along with devices removed before cremation, are disposed of or recycled.
Implants made from non-metal materials, such as breast implants, filler, injections, or other cosmetic implants, are not removed before cremation. These are made from plastic, silicone, saline, etc., which incinerate like organic matter. Glass will melt during cremation, but will re-solidify during the cooling process, so it is usually removed beforehand.
Dental implants like gold teeth will melt during the cremation process. Dental gold is usually left in the body and is recovered or recycled after cremation by funeral staff. If a family wants to keep gold teeth, they must arrange for them to be removed before cremation is conducted.
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Unlike flame cremation, metal implants and devices are not destroyed during the aquamation process, so they do not need to be removed. However, local regulations and laws may require the removal of certain implants. For example, in Ontario, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) requires that pacemakers and defibrillators be removed beforehand.
Unless legally required, all remaining implants will remain within the body during aquamation. Clothing is removed unless it is protein-based (e.g., silk) because it will not break down. Implants come out of the vessel clean and sterilized. These, too, are recycled. Many funeral providers (for cremation and aquamation) have a recycling program set up, where proceeds received from recycling leftover metal are donated to charity.
If you have questions about aquamation or cremation, ask our expert funeral directors via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To make arrangements, click here. For information about our service areas please visit our locations page.