Saving the day with new methods of rot
April 23, 2015 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Corpses are no longer decaying in many German cemeteries. Instead, the deceased become waxen, an uncanny process that has become so rampant it can no longer be ignored. When bodies don't decompose, their graves can't be reused -- a common practice in Germany. Contrary to many other countries, where final resting places are traditionally maintained in perpetuity, Germany recycles cemetery plots after a period of 15 to 25 years. Experience has shown that the earthly remains of the deceased rot away almost entirely in this amount of time, but only under favorable soil conditions.
posted by sciatrix (48 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Must be something about the soil.
posted by rankfreudlite at 6:29 PM on April 23, 2015


Brings a new nuance to the term terroir.
posted by zrail at 6:32 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Germany recycles cemetery plots after a period of 15 to 25 years.

Hey, at least it's better than building a housing development on top of them.
posted by orange swan at 6:39 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.

Don't do that, then.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:39 PM on April 23, 2015 [80 favorites]


When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.

When I worked for Godiva Chocolatier in the mall, we weren't allowed to say the chocolate Easter bunnies were hollow, we had to say "semi solid."

I suspect those bodies sounded semi solid.
posted by xingcat at 6:41 PM on April 23, 2015 [27 favorites]


This is apparently the same thing as the soap mummy who was always a must see on every trip to the Smithsonian. But he was from Philadelphia.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:43 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Must be something about the soil.

"A high moisture content in the subsoil combined with low temperatures and a lack of oxygen are the main culprits."

Paragraph three.
posted by absalom at 6:54 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]




Too bad Mary Roach didn't cover this!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:57 PM on April 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


Well. That's not creepy as fuck...
posted by Naberius at 6:59 PM on April 23, 2015


Sounds like Germany needs more worms and like...other dirt bugs.

Cemeteries are really wasteful, dead bodies should really be broken and otherwise rendered down into more useful materials. I intend to have my bones pulverized into a fine powder and used as fake prop cocaine in the movies.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:09 PM on April 23, 2015 [42 favorites]


"A high moisture content in the subsoil combined with low temperatures and a lack of oxygen are the main culprits."

Peat forms under similar circumstances!!! Maybe the bodies could be used to make delicious smoky whisky?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:10 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Joakim Ziegler: "When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.
Don't do that, then.
"

WHY WOULD YOU NOT?

"Guys! Guys! If I poke this corpse with a shovel, it sounds hollow! Check it out!"

Heinrich Kettler, who specializes in reconditioning soils that have become unsuitable for decomposition.

This guy's job is awesome. (Not sarcastic.)

After excavating the unusable soil, Linder fills the area with a "custom mixture of topsoil, woodchips and gravel."

Yeah, that sounds about right, but they should add French drains to keep the clay soil draining --

Finishing touches to the burial place include a drainage system with additional filter and seepage layers.

Oh, there's the French drains!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:11 PM on April 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


I didn't see it mentioned in the article, so I presume the bodies are not being embalmed? Which, actually, is an interesting question- what are the worldwide statistics for embalming? For raw burials?

And since the article does mention it, what is it about death that's so taboo to the Germans? I thought they were fairly progressive? I know Americans can be pretty conservative about funeral practices (although I'm aware of the growing DIY home wake and green burial movement), who else has strong taboos about death?
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 7:12 PM on April 23, 2015


When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.

Don't do that, then.


Ok so how do you determine if a wax-like body is hollow then? Rapping it with your knuckle? Gross!
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:13 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Obviously you push too hard and plunge your hands into the suddenly broken chest cavity, whereupon it sprouts giant fangs and eats your wrists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:26 PM on April 23, 2015 [19 favorites]


That is the first sign of a zombie apocalypse...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:27 PM on April 23, 2015


apparently die Deutschen simply ni' genug ess'n.
posted by dorian at 7:31 PM on April 23, 2015


When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.

"That's a hell of a set of tubular bells you got there, Jurgen."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:36 PM on April 23, 2015 [9 favorites]


Madame Tussauds' Fill Dirt and Croissant.
posted by clavdivs at 7:40 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I intend to have my bones pulverized into a fine powder and used as fake prop cocaine in the movies.

My plan was to have a pub crawl up and down 6th Street in Austin with a portion of my ashes being deposited in ashtrays in every club. A round for the house in my memory would be tossed back at every stop. The idea was to see who lasted longer, my ashes or the mourners. But then Austin passed a no smoking ban and ruined my funereal plans. Back to the drawing board...
posted by jim in austin at 7:43 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Stuff You Missed In History Class (mefi recently) JUST did an episode on corpse saponification called The Lady Who Turned to Soap, I'm pretty sure that they mentioned the German problem as part of their coverage.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:46 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I worked for Godiva Chocolatier in the mall, we weren't allowed to say the chocolate Easter bunnies were hollow, we had to say "semi solid."

That describes jello, not chocolate.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:13 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


so now I've got The Infant of Prague Customized My Van stuck in my head. Thanks, corpses.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:18 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cemeteries are really wasteful, dead bodies should really be broken and otherwise rendered down into more useful materials.

I have no opinion about whether or not cemeteries are wasteful but I did just experience something quite interesting and memorable related to dealing with human remains a couple of weeks ago at the tail end of a visit to long visit to Japan

My father-in-law died several years ago. He and I became pretty close in the short time we knew each - about 3 or 4 years at most.

There was a funeral, and he was cremated. His ashes were collected in two urns. One urn is placedin the family grave, which we visit whenever we return to Tsuruga. The last two years we have visited the family grave for O-Higan, the Vernal Equinox, a day when many people visit the graves.

The second urn was placed was placed in the family Buddhist altar - the butsudan - which is installed in the family home. After a period of time (typically three years, but it depends on which Buddhist denomination the family is affiliated with), these ashes are transported from the family altar to the "honzan" temple - the main temple of the family's denomination.

The honzan in my wife's family's case is Higashi Honganji, in Kyoto. It's one of the most famous temples in Japan, and its Founders Hall, dedicated to Saint Shinran, is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

The process of transferring remains to the temple is called nōkotsu (納骨). Like everything else in Japanese Buddhism it costs a hell of a lot of money, and you have to mail in a request about six weeks ahead of time.

So we took my mother-in-law and my father-in-law (his remains) with us to Kyoto a couple of weeks ago. We were admitted to a large tatami reception area. There were a number of other families there, probably a hundred people in all, all there for nōkotsu.

Following some formalities a minister came out and delivered a sermon. At the end he said something to the effect of, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, so make sure you donate all of your money to Higashi Honganji when you die, m'kay?"

By this point we had already handed off my father-in-law to a young deacon, so after that the group was led through the dimly lit back halls of the gigantic Founders Hall. There was a ceremony in a partitioned area. At the back of the hall tourists with big cameras, fannypacks, and mom jeans stared at us.

And that was it.

Millions of people call Higashi Honganji their honzan, so presumably there must be a massive warehouse of human ashes someplace.

I asked my wife where it was all stored, and she suggested that after a time the ashes are actually used to create statuary.

I recalled that I had seen similar statues like this one in Tsuruga (they occupy special outbuildings on the temple grounds) and other places.

It's pretty interesting because the names of the people "interred" in the statue are logged in little notebooks kept with the statue.

I miss my father-in-law, and I wish the ceremony had had more meaning. But he had been very cynical - and pragmatic - about the business of being dead. I had never quite understood why Japanese people can be so cynical about religion but now I am reminded why.
posted by Nevin at 8:33 PM on April 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Reusing graves seems very sensible. Especially in the long term, giving every dead person their own little block of land could take up quite a lot of space. Any place that's been densely inhabited as long as Europe has where they don't reuse graves, it's a wonder there's any land left for anything else.

Personally I'd probably go for cremation, and maybe a memorial park bench with a plaque. But cryonic freezing has a certain draw.
posted by bracems at 8:40 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm going to be stuffed and put in a corner of the living room. Preferably in the "attacking bear" type pose.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:51 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Mmmnyeah, wouldn't recommend doing a GIS on "corpse wax". I did, and it's 100% definitely cremation for me.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:55 PM on April 23, 2015


giving every dead person their own little block of land could take up quite a lot of space.

Less than I thought it would, though. Depends how closely you packed them, and if you used 3 dimensions or only 2.
posted by ctmf at 9:14 PM on April 23, 2015


I would really like to become a fossil, preferably silicified. I suspect I'll make something of a project of it when I get older.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:49 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


This wasn't posted by the MeFite with the appropriate handle.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:53 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or one could have their ashes turned into synthetic diamonds.

Imagine: a mausoleum filled with a lattice of diamonds made from the deceased.
posted by porpoise at 10:09 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


In my will, a portion of my ashes will be made into synthetic precious stones. Those stones will be gracing the hand of my husband's next wife. Keep your friends and family close, but your enemies even closer.
posted by jadepearl at 10:15 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


I would play the shit out of Cemetery Simulator 2015.
posted by um at 10:23 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think that's called Plants vs. Zombies.
posted by benzenedream at 10:54 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Sounds like Germany needs more worms

I thought the Germans had a diet of worms.

I'll just see myself out.
posted by bryon at 11:12 PM on April 23, 2015 [31 favorites]


Or one could have their ashes turned into synthetic diamonds.

There was just a subtly brilliant tagline in a local ad for this from a cremation service here, to the effect of "No chance hubby'll say no this time."
posted by progosk at 2:12 AM on April 24, 2015


I used to work as a sexton and groundskeeper for three churches in Denmark, which meant that I was also kind of a gravedigger. I say kind of, because graves were actually dug by the guy from the local agricultural vehicle workshop with his wee JCB, but I was the person jumping in and out of the grave as it was being dug, shoring and boarding up the sides. Since grave plots in Denmark can be reused after thirty years, we would occasionally find some human remains at the bottom - I'd set the aside carefully, and when the digging was done, jump in with a spade and bury the remains at the bottom of the grave. It was one of the three graveyards in particular where this was an issue - the soil was wet and contained a lot of clay compared to the other two.

Interesting fact I learned from a colleague in that job - in Switzerland, good burying soil is at a serious premium, and grave sites can be reused after as little as twelve years.
posted by Dysk at 2:35 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Contrary to many other countries, where final resting places are traditionally maintained in perpetuity

That's actually not such a very old tradition; in the UK, Parliament only banned the reuse of graves with the Burial Act 1857. Up until the early Victorian era, London's dead continued to be buried in the city's churchyards...which ended up re-using the graves--traditionally, after they'd decayed to bones, they'd be removed to the charnel house...but the overcrowding of the city graveyards led to a lot of not-quite-fully-decomposed bodies being dug up to make room for new tenants. Some of London's burying grounds were so full of dead in such a small space that "the ground (was) absolutely saturated with human putrescence", the stench of decay hung over the area, and there was a lot of excess mortality from nasty diseases like cholera and typhus.

Germany recycles cemetery plots after a period of 15 to 25 years.

Which may be causing the problem by altering the soil; here's an 18th century description of Les Innocents in Paris (where the dead were stacked like cordwood in mass graves) that describes bodies "turned to a fatty substance"...and also describes gravediggers moving them by "folding or rolling them up" (no word on whether they took breaks to play football with skulls, though).
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 3:30 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Ufer delivered three of them recently to Kürten in the Rhineland for relatives of the late composer decomposer Karlheinz Stockhausen."
posted by Kattullus at 3:44 AM on April 24, 2015


jadepearl: "a portion of my ashes will be made into synthetic precious stones."

I tell my husband that's what I'm doing with him when he dies, and I will wear him as a ring, and I will use that hand to berate our descendants. "If your sainted grandfather could see you wearing that tacky velour spacesuit, he would die again on the spot! *brandish ring* Did he work so hard so his great-grandchildren could be lazy, good-for-nothing space hobos?"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:22 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


Magician and paranormal de-bunker James Randi said that after he is gone he does not want his fans to bother with a museum of magic named after him or burying him in a fancy tomb. Instead, he said, "I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller's eyes."
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:51 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I presume the bodies are not being embalmed

Actually, embalming doesn't do anything to prevent other chemical & biological processes from occuring. Its mostly to keep the bodies vaguely presentable for an open showing at a funeral.

There is a splendidly squicky passage in Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death about a lawsuit which ended any claims about ANY part of the embalmer's art preventing decomposition.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:13 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]




marvin: ""...the shift in the 1960s from home-made food to processed food, which has resulted in people having less bacteria in their bodies, has caused corpses to rot more slowly than they used to.""

By the guy (a professor of psychology) who sells the book "The Shangri-La Diet: No Hunger, Eat Anything, Weight-Loss Plan". Suffice to say I'm more than a little skeptical.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm going to be stuffed and put in a corner of the living room. Preferably in the "attacking bear" type pose.

Dangit, that was my idea too. Fully nude, with possible animatronics involved. The conditions of my will are going to demand that the body be displayed in the primary living space of my sole inheritor.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:15 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I want to be made into Soylent Green.

But I'd probably make a bitter, bitter batch.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 1:34 PM on April 24, 2015


Wow is my mom going to be conflicted if dad goes first. Follow halakhah, or get a new piece of ice. Talk about diamonds are a girl's best friend!
posted by Dreidl at 1:57 PM on April 24, 2015


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