Lock in the freshness!

Josh Slocum takes to the Washington Post to explain to us, in his characteristically hornet-like way, what the problem is with putting dead bodies in boxes and then storing them in buildings above ground.

You’ve never heard of exploding casket syndrome (ask your mortician if it’s right for you), but funeral directors and cemetery operators have. They sell so-called “protective” or “sealer” caskets at a premium worth hundreds of dollars each, with the promise that they’ll keep out air and moisture that — they would have you believe — cause bodies to rapidly deteriorate. Like Tupperware for the dead, they “lock in the freshness!” with a rubber gasket.

Ah but if you lock it in, then…well we can see where this is going.

The caskets can explode, and the rotting goo oozes out.

There’s no way of telling how common exploding caskets are, since no official agencies are charged with tracking the problem. But as head of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, I frequently hear from families around the country who have sued cemeteries and funeral homes for exploding caskets or have caught mausoleums secretly propping open caskets to prevent a gas buildup. Whole product lines have been created to keep your relatives’ remains from tarnishing the fine establishments they inhabit. There’s Kryprotek, a plastic lining that surrounds caskets to enclose their leaky contents. Andthere’s Ensure-A-Seal, essentially a bag for a box, which recently ran this advertisement in a funeral trade magazine:

Let Nature Take Its Course

We know what happens after the crypt is sealed. Your clients do not know, or do not want to know . . .  Don’t let natural processes destroy your facility’s reputation.

At bottom, the problem is fraud. Casket-makers and funeral homes know sealer caskets don’t preserve bodies, yet too many peddle lies about the preserving powers of overpriced boxes to grieving people whose emotions are easily manipulated.

In short? Bodies decay. Expensive boxes and bags can’t prevent that. A company that tells you it can is trying to defraud you. There ain’t no effective Tupperware for the dead.



  1. says

    Does it make me a bad person that I’m cackling audibly* at this?

    Sweet FSM. Things decay. Meat, especially, and with a certain fragrant emphasis. Anyone who lives where the city requests you put the bits of steak in with the rest of the compost for up to the week it may take them to collect it should know this only too well by now.

    Perhaps we need to adjust our rituals. A little more emphasis on the saying goodbye bit. Remember your loved one as they were before the saprobes really got going, and do get on with it; it’s difficult to convince them to wait much.

  2. yazikus says

    Anyone who lives where the city requests you put the bits of steak in with the rest of the compost for up to the week it may take them to collect it should know this only too well by now.

    AJ Milne, do tell, what does this mean? (Obvs. I don’t live in a city that does this. My town won’t even recycle glass.)

  3. says

    yazikus/#4, I live in Ottawa, Canada, where you are expected to put everything compostable in this green box thing (yes, it’s closed enough and latched to keep out animals). This is collected weekly; the non-recyclable/non-compostable garbage–mostly bits of plastic film only every two weeks, so, really, putting the stuff that will rot into the green bin is generally wise…

    We’ve a cool climate, so much of the year, it’s not so bad. Green bin in garage, garage is at -30, fine. But summers can get a mite fragrant in that garage. I try generally to schedule meals so the meat doesn’t sit too long, and in theory you could refrigerate all meaty bits until garbage day. But then there’s the film that arrived wrapping chicken, so on…

  4. yazikus says

    This is collected weekly; the non-recyclable/non-compostable garbage–mostly bits of plastic film only every two weeks, so, really, putting the stuff that will rot into the green bin is generally wise…

    That is so awesome. Where I live, they pick up the garbage (whatever you put in there, they don’t care) every week and the recycle bin (only plastic) every two weeks. A terrible part of the glass issue is that I live in an economy fueled by wine production and sales. The amount of glass bottles we go through (something like 135 tasting rooms) daily is staggering. And into the landfill they go. Thanks for explaining re: compost, that makes much more sense. I compost at home for the garden, but have never included meat, just veggie debris.

  5. says

    … And yeah, yazikus, it is a good policy. Forced a bit I suspect by the simple economic cost of landfills, but still. Local reactionaries grumble a bit, and there is a bit of a trick to keeping it manageable at the disposal end (cleaning a green box can get horrific left long enough), but still good policy.

  6. chrislawson says

    It is possible to prevent decay. You can use mummification, freeze-drying, plasticising, or formalin. The problem is that these are all expensive. So the fraud is in pretending there is a cheap way of doing this. (Mind you, I’m not in favour of preservation after death. If it weren’t for local laws and the fact that my family would freak out, I’d be very happy to go the full Zoroastrian.)

  7. Ed says

    I’ve never been a big fan of “preserving” bodies anyway. It’s fascinating the number of cultures that believe in some form of this and that erecting some kind of shrine to the dead which includes the corpse itself is essential to show respect or even provide for the person`s wellbeing in the afterlife.

    Add to this the Christian and Islamic idea of bodily resurrection where the body is supposedly sitting there waiting to pop out of the tomb. This is based on strange reasoning given the nature of decay and the fact that many bodies are not recovered intact to be buried or put in crypts.

    It’s funny how even though God is supposed to be able to resurrect people from ashes or the sea, so many think it’s disrespectful not to be buried as if you’d be making things hard on him. Like he’s going, oh man, not another set of scattered remains to deal with!

    It gets more complicated in religions where proper burial and honoring ceremonies are literally magic which supposedly ensures the deceased person’s happiness.

    I’ve always preferred the idea of totally eliminating the body. While I don’t believe in an afterlife, what could be a purer sign of leaving this realm than letting go of attachment to the body which cannot be truly preserved anyway? To let it be cremated, discarded in the wilderness or the good old Tower of Silence.

    A completely honest recognition that whatever you believe comes next THIS life is over forever. If people want to keep the ashes (though I’d rather have mine scattered in a strong wind or put in a moving body of water)or set up a monument to the person, fine.

  8. says

    There are several historical records of corpses exploding. In the Mowbray Legacy, Marilyn Roberts write:

    “The Conqueror had built Caen’s Abbey Church of St. Stephen as a penance because he and his wife were related within the permitted boundaries; now it was the scene of the great man’s funeral, with his good friend Bishop Geoffrey de Mowbray in attendance. But no matter how solemn the occasion might have been, the fact remains that after death the King’s body had been stripped all but naked, robbed of its finery and left for some time on the bare floor. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis,

    … the inferior attendants, observing that their masters had disappeared, (presumably to secure their castles before the change of power) laid hands on the arms, the plate, the robes, the linen, and all the royal furniture, and leaving the corpse almost naked on the floor of the house, they hastened away…

    William, however, had his revenge from beyond when his bloated and putrefying corpse would not fit into the too-small sarcophagus, no matter how hard Bishop Geoffrey and the others tried to force it, and in a scene worthy of a Hammer Horror film, inflated with gas and pus and the putrefaction of gangrene, the huge abdomen burst open. As the bespattered clergymen fought to maintain their dignity and composure in the face of such an unusual challenge, the indescribably awful smell sent the mourners scurrying for the doors.”

  9. lpetrich says

    Bertrand Russell noted in his “Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”:

    The sacredness of corpses is a widespread belief. It was carried furthest by the Egyptians, among whom it led to the practice of mummification. It still exists in full force in China. A French surgeon, who was employed by the Chinese to teach Western medicine, relates that his demand for corpses to dissect was received with horror, but he was assured that he could have instead an unlimited supply of live criminals. His objection to this alternative was totally unintelligible to his Chinese employers.

    That was in the early 20th cy. Turning to present-day China, the widespread reluctance to donate internal organs is the reason offered for the widely-rumored harvesting of them from condemned criminals.

  10. lpetrich says

    Religion And Music… And Lions | διά πέντε / dia pente
    J. Quinton notes Joseph Jordania’s Why Do People Sing?: Music in Human Evolution, something that also includes something curious about how we treat our dead fellows:

    Early hominids quite possibly ate their dead, and (some while later) definitely started burying them. The instinct to preserve a dead human body from mutilation, and then to dispose of it, is fairly universal. E.g. we strive to retrieve corpses even from a battlefield.

    JJ proposes that the purpose of doing so is to defend our dead bodies from land predators, so they don’t discover that we are good to eat.

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