Reader Question: What shape would an exhumed body be in after almost twenty years?
Answer: Not pretty. This question is difficult to answer because the results would depend on many factors.
- How long has the body been buried?
- Where was it buried?
- How was the casket made?
- Was it in a casket?
- How much bacteria in the body?
- Have animals got to the body? Bugs?
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Exhumation is usually done in broad daylight. For this reason, the exhumation team should reach the site of burial (graveyard) in the early morning hours. The grave is identified properly, with the help of relatives and the official in charge of the graveyard.
Screening off the area
If there are too many curious spectators, the area should be screened off. Professional diggers are then requested to remove soil from the grave. When the coffin becomes visible, strong ropes are passed beneath the coffin, and it is lifted up.
Collection of soil
Soil from above, below, and from all four sides of the coffin should be collected and preserved in separate glass jars, with identification tags. In addition, at least two samples must be taken from some distance - say around 25 to 30 yards from the grave (figures 3, 4). This is very necessary in some poisoning cases. One example would make the situation clear. If the person is alleged to have been killed by administration of arsenic, and arsenic is found in the body after exhumation, the defense may take the plea that the arsenic found in the body leached in the body from the surrounding soil. It is well known that soil may contain traces of arsenic. An examination of soil recovered from around the grave would reveal whether there was arsenic in the surrounding soil or not. Even if arsenic is present in the surrounding soil, it does not necessarily mean that the defense would become very strong. If the concentration of arsenic found in the body is more than that found in the soil, it clearly indicates that arsenic could not have passively diffused from the soil to the body.
It is customary to open the lid of the coffin once it is brought out of the grave. It not only allows foul gases to escape in open air (rather than be released in the mortuary later), but also enables the pathologist to make a quick examination of the remains. When the coffin is opened, the medical officer in-charge should first of all examine the body in situ, and preferably take photographs. Bones may be friable, and may break during subsequent handling, so in situ examination is often quite helpful.
After an in situ examination is done, the body is transferred to the mortuary for a post-mortem. Here the post-mortem is done as in any other case. If there are worms or other insects over the body, it might be tempting to sprinkle insecticides over the body, but it should never be done, as it might interfere later with the determination of poison in the body. If the smell is too offensive, it is advisable to wear a gauze mask dipped in a solution of potassium permanganate. Samples of viscera should be taken for detection of poisons. Many poisons, such as metallic poisons remain in the body for several years. Hair, nails and bones such as femur may also reveal metallic poisons like arsenic.
If only bones are recovered in exhumation (as in very old graves), the bones must be boiled before examination. Maceration by this process may reveal diagnosis not available otherwise by ordinary examination.
Sources: Exhumation (Warning: Disturbing photos on main page)