Exists a corpse

Wax corpses: if the dead don't rot

The last rest usually ends after 25 years, when the lease period for a grave expires. When digging, cemetery workers often come across more than they'd like. Corpses have not decomposed as planned - some facial features are still recognizable. These are so-called wax corpses that were unintentionally mummified.

A conference on wax corpses took place at the University of Bonn on Tuesday (November 14th, 2017). There, experts in ethics, law and soil science were looking for a solution for the dead who have not decayed even after decades.

The problem of wax corpses is not a new one

As early as 2012, a study by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) came to the conclusion that in every fourth of the approximately 33,000 cemeteries in Germany the corpses did not rot as they should.

In the meantime, according to Bonn law professor and bio law expert Tade Spranger, the problem has worsened: "There is hardly a cemetery in Germany that is not at least partially affected by it".

Handling of wax corpses not regulated

Cemetery workers are then often left alone with the problem; there are no uniform rules for dealing with wax corpses. Industry insiders also anonymously report brutal methods.

Some excavator drivers would smash the coffin with a shovel before shoveling in a fresh grave in order to make it easier for microorganisms to access the decay. When wax corpses were found, some cemeteries had them reverently cremated, while others simply disposed of them.

Wax corpses: unintentionally mummified

Even if the name suggests it - wax corpses do not contain wax. The waxy tissue has a different background: it saponifies the fat under the skin and around the organs.

The reason for the saponification is a lack of oxygen. Aerobic types of bacteria can only decompose corpses if they are supplied with oxygen. If this does not happen, the body fats are converted into a wax-like protective layer, also called adipocire. Bacteria and enzymes cannot digest Adipocire well - decomposition stops.

Main cause water

One reason for wax corpses are cemetery floors, which have a high proportion of water. For example, if they are near coasts or rivers where the groundwater level is permanently high.

In addition, many graves are poured excessively. Because the pores of the soil are constantly filled with water, no oxygen reaches the corpse and it cannot rot.

In addition, clay soils are inherently more impermeable to air and thus facilitate the preservation of the corpse.

There are also many other factors that inhibit decomposition:

  • Synthetic fiber clothing of the dead: Bacteria have difficulty digesting synthetic fibers. Natural fibers like cotton are better.
  • Coffin material made of plastic, clay and metal: there is almost no decomposition here. Hardwoods such as mahogany, larch or oak are better.
  • Antibiotics: This is where the experts disagree. While some speak of the fact that a high level of antibiotic consumption in the deceased later inhibits decomposition, others point out that this has not yet been proven.

Professor Fritz Sörgel from the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in Nuremberg told WDR.de: "There are some antibiotics, for example agents containing ciprofloxacin, that last in the body for 20 years or more. At the same time, bacteria develop resistance to these antibiotics again during this time. So one cannot assume that antibiotics have a notable influence on the emergence of wax corpses."

Give more time to putrefaction

Some cemeteries have increased the quiet periods to allow more time for the decomposition process. Or they only release certain areas for cremations.

But there are also more complex solutions: In the North Sea, some communities keep the groundwater level in their cemeteries low with pumps. Elsewhere, the cemetery floor has already been completely replaced.

For example, gravel or sandy soil is better suited for the decomposition of corpses than air-impermeable clay soil. Experts also advise planting perennials. They are deeply rooted and therefore have to be watered less often.

In addition, more and more burial chambers are now being offered that are embedded in the earth. Then the coffin does not come into contact with the ground, but stands in a concrete chamber. So the coffin is protected from water. Oxygen enters the chamber through an activated carbon filter. Once installed, the concrete chambers can be used multiple times.

Software against wax corpses

Together with the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, the expert Michael Albrechte has developed computer software for cemeteries. The program with the name "RuheSoft" calculates from the local conditions how long the putrefaction is likely to last.

"We feed various factors into the program, including: What is the soil like? How much precipitation can be expected? How does the grave cover affect the decomposition process? So first of all it's about paying a lot."

In the end, the software predicts how long it will take oxygen to get to the corpse. In practice, according to Albrecht, it has been shown that the factor of clothing has played a previously underestimated role in the decomposition process. He advises that the deceased should be buried only in natural fibers.

Status: 11/14/2017, 06:00