What Happens to the Body in a Casket Over Time? | 4funeral.com (2024)

You may attract some weird looks in your direction if you happen to ask someone ‘what happens to a body in a casket over time?’. However, we purchase a casket for our loved ones and watch them lowered into the ground, so it’s quite normal to wonder what happens to them. Luckily, we have the technology to figure out what happens.

Over time the body in a casket will begin to decompose. This process starts with autolysis or self-digestion and the body starts to bloat. Once bloated, the body begins to decay and the insides start to liquify leading to skeletonization. At this point the body will begin to disintegrate over time.

In this article, we’ll discuss a few specifics of what happens to a body after you bury it. This is a pretty unusual topic, so read on and you might just learn something new!

Table of Contents

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What Are the Stages of Decomposition for a Body in a Casket?

The stages mentioned in the previous paragraph cover what happens to the body right after death and for the next ten months. Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps in detail.


This process starts almost instantly after death and is also known as self-digestion. Cell membranes will begin to rupture after blood stops flowing, and these membranes will release enzymes. The enzymes that our body releases during this early stage of decomposition begin to attack other cells, ingesting them from the inside out.

This is the stage where rigor mortis will begin to set in. You will also notice small blisters on the outside of the deceased’s skin during this phase as the enzymes attack other cells.


After the first stage, the ruptured cells will begin to produce gasses that cause the body to bloat. You will also find discoloration in the skin during this stage as the gasses and bacteria spread through the body.

During this stage you will start to notice a rotten smell as the body initiates the decaying process. This odor is the smell of bacteria and gasses emanating from the body. The bloating phase is what morticians try to put off for as long as possible with the help of embalming fluid. They need to complete the process before this stage as the smell of decay can be pretty intense.

This stage begins to take place about three to five days after the person dies. This short time window is why morticians are so quick to initiate the embalming process, as most families take longer than three to five days to plan the funeral. If the body is left any longer without embalming, it will begin to release a foul odor.

The deceased will start to turn red as the gasses accumulate in the organs during this stage. Afterwards, the deceased’s nails and teeth will begin to fall out. All of this happens before active decay begins.

Active Decay

Once the above stage is concluded, the body will begin to enter the phase of active decay. This is the stage where the body begins to break down and the organs begin to liquefy. This phase begins about a month after the deceased has passed away. Essentially, the body will have been in the casket for at least two or three weeks before it starts to decay.

As the body begins to liquefy, the internal organs aren’t the only facets of the body affected; even the skin will begin to decay during this stage.

This is the stage where most of the human body begins to decay. The decay affects all parts, including bones, organs, and even hair. During this stage the corpse loses most of its weight as the organs start to atrophy and disappear.

Once the organs have liquified, the insides will become acidic. As such, the clothes used to dress the deceased will last about a year before they fully disintegrate. It can take a long time for the liquified organs to fully disappear. As they melt away, they will burn through the clothes and fabric.


This stage is the hardest to categorize in terms of timeline as it takes place at significantly different times based on the body. Most will agree that skeletonization doesn’t start until about four to six months after death, though it can take years for this process to begin. A few factors will affect how fast or slow this stage progresses.

Warmer temperatures can speed up the process of decay, much like how leaving a meal out in the open will eventually cause it to spoil. Conversely, cool temperatures can help slow down the decomposition process. The slowing of decay is the reason why you will often find bodies placed inside refrigerators in the morgue.

Eventually most of the physical body decomposes and the skeleton is revealed as the organs and skin decay.

Full Disintegration

It will take about eighty years for the bones in the human body to start cracking. The bones begin to break because the collagen inside the bones start to deteriorate, leaving them extremely brittle. Over the next few years, the bones will begin to fully disintegrate.

After about a hundred years, the body will have almost completely disintegrated. The liquified organs will be gone, and the bones will have disappeared as well. You may find only a set of teeth and the remains of some liquified organs in the casket. After such an extended period, most traces of the body will have been extinguished.

Do Caskets Help Preserve Bodies?

Caskets help preserve the bodies of the deceased for an extended period. A casket won’t protect a body forever, and even with a sealed casket, the human body will continue to decay. The process of decay will be significantly slowed in a casket.

People can purchase caskets that offer sealing as well, unlike regular caskets. The sealing feature ensures that your loved one’s remains are preserved much longer than in an unsealed casket. These boxes are typically more expensive than non-sealed ones due to the extra supplies and effort to design them.

The decomposition process will take place in every human body no matter how much we attempt to preserve someone’s remains. As such, the caskets will only help put off the process of decay for a short period of time. Sealed caskets do the same thing as regular caskets, but the body will typically be preserved longer.

Sealed caskets mainly help by preventing moisture from affecting the body. And keeping the body dry is the most effective way to slow down the process of decay.

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Overall, caskets can help significantly slow down the process of decomposition, but they cannot stop it. All the stages of decomposition mentioned above will take place either way. Only the timing of each phase may differ if the body is in a sealed casket.

How Quickly After Death Is a Body Embalmed?

After death, a mortician should embalm the body between the first twelve to twenty-four hours to fully preserve it till the funeral. Embalming within this timeframe will ensure that the body doesn’t get too far into the decaying process.

Morticians agree that embalming a body as quickly as possible is vital to preservation. For those who want to have a viewing or an open-casket funeral, the mortician should embalm the body within forty-eight hours after death at the latest.

Since the decomposition process begins right away, it’s crucial for morticians to act quickly when a body is in their care.

A lot of activity takes place right after someone passes away. First, the family is alerted about the death, which often comes as a shock. After the discovery the body must be transported to the morgue. Once there the mortician must immediately begin the embalming process.

Embalming may also be initiated much later if there’s an autopsy required for the body. The importance of the autopsy usually takes precedence over the embalming process. As such, by the time the authorities are done with the autopsy and allowed to begin embalming, there may not be enough time to truly preserve the body.

Additionally, the longer the mortician must wait to embalm the body, the more challenging this task becomes. Not only will the process of decomposition have already begun, but rigor mortis will have set in strongly. These conditions can make it more difficult for the mortician to be able to move and position the body of the deceased as needed.

Is an Embalmed or Refrigerated Body Going To Last Longer?

A refrigerated body will last longer than an embalmed body, while neither process will preserve the figure too long for an open-casket funeral. In this case, the embalmed or refrigerated body will last about a week before it loses the appropriate appearance required for an open-casket service.

The embalming process has become an integral part of open-casket funerals. Most embalmings happen within the first day of death, sometimes stretching to two days if necessary. If the body can’t be embalmed right away for whatever reason, it needs to be refrigerated to prevent decomposition.

If you plan an open-casket funeral, you should lay out the procedure as quickly as possible. Embalmed bodies typically only last about a week before the decomposition process begins again. As such, open-casket services come with a time crunch.

Why Refrigerating Bodies Can Be Complicated

While there’s a short time window for open-casket funerals with embalmed bodies, these funerals are even more difficult to manage if the body has been refrigerated. While refrigeration slows the process of decomposition, you still need to embalm the body. However, the time span for embalming a refrigerated body is even smaller than one that’s recently deceased.

If you prefer a closed-casket service you have some more time to work with. Embalmed bodies can last for about three weeks if the casket is closed during the service. The longer timeline is primarily because embalming slows down the process of decomposition to the point where the body won’t start to smell overwhelmingly bad until after the three-week mark.

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Refrigerate If You Have To Wait

While you can get about three weeks of preservation from embalming, refrigeration often lasts much longer. In fact, refrigeration can help preserve the body for about a month after death. As such it’s ideal for people who wish to postpone a funeral service, and wait for their loved ones to be present.

While there is no federal law about embalming a body for a funeral, we need to carefully follow state codes regarding the care and exposure of dead bodies. In fact, a common code states that civilians cannot view a body that no one has embalmed after 36 hours. This time frame is set to protect the families from seeing their loved ones in a state of decay.

Furthermore, funeral directors and families of the deceased are responsible for disposing of the body within five hours of removal from the refrigerator. This procedure is applicable to non-embalmed bodies, even in case the family involved has chosen a closed-casket service.

Bodies kept under refrigeration will begin to decay quickly once we remove them from the cold. This accelerated decay is the reason why the law puts the five-hour time limit in place.

Without further action, the body will begin to emit a powerful, foul odor. During a time of grief, most people would be further devastated if they were required to smell the decaying body of their loved one. As such, the mortician must act immediately after the body is unrefrigerated.

Remember, though, that not all states allow bodies to be refrigerated. So it’s best to check the local laws first before planning for the deceased.

Final Thoughts

Over time, whether in a casket or out in the open, a body will begin to decompose. This process is delayed slightly by the presence of a sealed casket. However, it will still happen to every human body no matter how well we try to preserve them.

Due to all the factors involved in decomposition, there’s no direct answer for how long it will take. While the process begins right after death, decomposition can take anywhere from four months to years.


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What Happens to the Body in a Casket Over Time? | 4funeral.com (2024)
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