Humans have a habit of wanting to save everything. From letters from exes to the license plates of an old car, we tend to get attached to the material world and keep things around long after their expiration date. Human bodies are no exception—it is not uncommon for us to shell out thousands of dollars in order to preserve the corpses of those we love. Unfortunately, these attempts to stifle the natural process of decay can backfire in bizarre ways, one of which is exploding casket syndrome.
Before we jump into corpses-that-go-boom, let’s talk briefly about the ways in which we try to forestall decay. Whatever the underlying rationale given by family members and friends, be it religion, emotion, or the dream of a sci-fi cryonic resurrection, the death industry offers several options for staving off decomposition.
Embalming is one, and is often used in situations where the deceased will be laid out for viewing. Further protection can be obtained by choosing mausoleum internment over in-ground burial. If that’s not enough of a preemptive strike, protective caskets, sealed with a rubber strip to block any further agents of putrescence, are also available. These extras don’t come cheaply, however, and once you see the bill, you might feel a little like dying yourself.
Ultimately, spending the money is sort of pointless. We can’t stop biology. All organisms will decompose eventually, including the corpses protected by marble walls and rubber strips. Autolysis, or self-digestion, begins shortly after death, even before funeral providers can be contacted. As oxygen is depleted, anaerobic organisms begin to dismantle the body, transforming the remnants of a person into organic acids and gases. In the appropriately (and disgustingly) named bloat phase of decomposition, the accumulation of gases causes the putrefying body to, well, bloat as tissues soften and liquefy.
Exploding casket syndrome, as it is known in the death industry, occurs when these decomposition processes are not given adequate space to perform. In her awesome “Ask a Mortician” series, mortician Caitlin Doughty says, “You really want a decomposing body to have access to some sort of air so it can then dehydrate. But if it’s one of those super sealed protective caskets, there’s really no place for all of that gas and fluid to go and so the body can kind of turn into sort of a bog.”
Eventually, when the pressure builds high enough in that boggy tank of a casket, pop! Mausoleum panels can crack open, as happened recently in Melbourne, and caskets can be damaged. Not to mention that suddenly there is some very unfortunate clean up to do.
While you might not have heard of this before, casket makers are aware of the problem. Burper valves (another name that might make you cringe a bit) have been added to some models to accommodate and release gas build-up. Additionally, as Mark Harris notes in his book Grave Matters, other methods of avoiding the nightmare of an exploding casket include leaving the lid of the casket unlocked in the mausoleum (which obviously defeats the purpose of paying for the super sealed casket) and putting the casket itself into a gigantic plastic bag.
What it all comes down to is high school level biology class. Organisms live, organisms die, organisms decompose. Decomposition creates gas, gas has mass, trapping gas with mass has consequences. It all seems so simple and obvious—yes, of course that would happen! But to many people, it never crosses their minds. So next time you find yourself at a mausoleum and see the panel of a chamber ajar, you can think to yourself, “Well, maybe that’s why (and that's gross)."