What Really Happens To Your Body After 10 Years In A Coffin

Despite all depictions of violence in the media, death is something often kept out of sight in the modern world, as the opening for Karl Ove Knausgaard's Proust-like, 3,600-page epic My Struggle depicts. People pass away and are passed along. They're covered in sheets and kept out of sight until morticians beautify them for their final public reveal. Then the casket is closed, and that enclosure is literally stuffed into the ground and left impossible to access. (At least in the U.S., not in Buddhist or Hindu-majority countries that favor cremation.)

In turn, we've got plenty of curiosity, discussions, and speculation about what happens to the body (indeed, the "soul") after death. Does the body putrefy into a mass of watery substances or desiccate like a pharaoh? What about mausoleums? Or types of coffin wood? Or a steel vault? Or methods of embalming? Do overall health and age factors of the deceased matter? Could you transform into a "bog person" like Tollund Man in Denmark, as Atlas Obscura depicts, if only you sunk into a peat bog at the moment of death? Could your body, in fact, absorb some crazy fungus (per The Atlantic) and become an honest-to-goodness antagonist of the living in the zombie apocalypse?

The short answer is... yes? There are lot of factors that contribute to the state of a body ten years in a coffin. Certain biological facts, though, let us peer through the soil and create a glass window in the lid of a casket.

Decay sets in immediately after death

As biohazard removal specialist Aftermath explains, every human body undergoes the same stages of decay, within a coffin or otherwise, with certain exceptions such as mummification (which involves removing the organs), and barring environmental factors (a wet environment will hasten decay, and dry environment will slow decay, for example). In general, the body at one month vs. one year vs. ten years is actually not too, too drastic. Most dramatic decay happens within the first month after death.

Before then, though, non-cremated bodies pass through the same sets of hands, as Ranker outlines. First, the recently deceased pass along to autopsy techs, who may or may not extract all of a person's organs. After this, a sutured body is passed along to an embalmer, who undoes the stiches, replaces the organs, and injects a mixture of embalming fluid called "cavity fluid" into various vessels. A sealant is placed over the sutures to "prevent leakage" and sometimes plastic and powder are placed over the body, as well. This is all before the mortician applies makeup, trims nails, and dresses the dead for burial.

During this entire time, the body is undergoing decay that influences what it looks like ten years down the line. Within three days after death, in fact, the body undergoes autolysis, when bodily enzymes eat their own cells. Blood pools in parts of the body closest to the ground. Rigor mortis occurs and skin gets loose. And the abdomen? Generally, it turns lime-green.

After 10 years: teeth, bones, and maybe sinew or skin

After initial autolysis, the body bloats, exudes foul-smelling gases, and releases fluid from the mouth and nose (potentially the inspiration for ancient vampire myths, as National Geographic explains). This occurs three to five days after death, and explains why wakes are typically held right away (morticians can only do so much). This is when decay slows down. From eight days on, skin recedes from fingernails, bodies start to look "much less human," as Ranker describes, and flesh begins to decompose. Cartilage, bones, and hair stay intact much longer than muscles and organs.

With no coffin or embalming, a body in the ground in nature takes eight to ten years to totally decompose. Otherwise, the timeline is prolonged. Decay sets in sooner in a wooden casket rather than a metal casket, but sealing a casket can help keep out moisture and bacteria. On the other hand, this can cause caskets to pressurize as decomposing bodies release gas. Wooden caskets can distort in shape, as Trusted Caskets says, and even explode underground. As you can imagine, this definitely won't help preserve the body.

Coffins, though, just like people, decay and return to the soil. Long before then, the bodies inside them will largely be gone. Ultimately, from one month on, we all more or less liquify at a similar rate. Within ten years? Teeth, bones, and maybe skin or sinew are left, no matter what. Oh yes, and fibers from clothing, of course.