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    How Long Does It Take A Body To Decompose To Bone? And Why Can't The Funeral Home Salesmen Answer That One? Plus: Dispelling The Myths And Exposing The Cold-Blooded Profit-Driven World Of The Death Care Industry
    May 22, 2003

    Dear Ben: I've been told that metal or sealed caskets cause the decomposition process to accelerate tremendously. Why is it that they (salesmen at the funeral home) can't tell the family how long it's going to take for a body to decompose to bone? Doesn't anybody know out there? I find that hard to believe. Some funeral homes tell you the body will be perfect for decades and others tell you it won't last a year. Which is it?

    Catherine G., via e-mail

    Dear Catherine: I'm not a fan of the death care industry because I think they (frequently) take advantage of grieving consumers when they're most vulnerable. And at the risk of sounding completely cold-hearted Catherine, why does it matter how fast a body decomposes once it's been buried? I'm sure it's a question the coroner's office could answer...but before we go down that path I'd like to share some facts on this subject, courtesy of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). The FCA's mission statement is simple enough: Inform consumers about their choices concerning end-of-life issues. Let's dispel some of the most common myths, as outlined on their website,

    Embalming is required by law: False. Embalming is never required for the first 24 hours. In many states, it's not required at all under any circumstances. Refrigeration is almost always an alternative to embalming if there will be a delay before final disposition.

    Embalming protects the public health: False. There is no public health purpose served by embalming. In fact, the embalming process may create a health hazard by exposing embalmers to disease and toxic chemicals. In many cases, disease can still be found in an embalmed body. A dead body is less of a threat to public health than a live one that is still coughing and breathing.

    An embalmed body will last like the "beautiful memory picture" forever: False. Mortuary-type embalming is meant to hold the body only for a week or so. Ultimately, the body will decompose, even if it's been embalmed. Temperature and climate are more influential factors affecting the rate of decomposition.

    Viewing is necessary for "closure" after a death: Not necessarily. When the death has been anticipated, family members have already started their "good-byes." There is relatively little need to see the body to accept the reality of death. In fact, according to a study commissioned by the funeral industry itself, 32% of those interviewed found the viewing experience an unpleasant one for various reasons.

    "Protective" caskets help to preserve the body: False. While (rubber) "gasketed" caskets may keep out air, water, and other outside elements for a while, the body will decompose regardless. In fact, a gasketed or "sealer" casket interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out from the inside.

    Dose of Dover For The Week: You've got to get a realistic handle on-and prepare for-the end-of-life issues all of us are going to eventually deal with. My favorite resource for North Texas consumers? FCA's local affiliate, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of North Texas (FCANT) has a terrific consumer education/empowerment deal: A family membership to FCANT is only $35; their one-time membership fee gives consumers access to their current database of posted prices (required under federal law) charged by funeral homes. Even more valuable? Their counsel, and the documents they provide-Durable Power of Attorney forms, binding Physician Directives, inside scoop on pre-paying for funerals, how to form "Totten Trusts" (special bank accounts designed to pay funeral expenses immediately upon death) and more. Call them for more information: (972) 509-5686 or toll-free: (800) 371-2221, or check out their website:

    By the way: Ever since I first covered this topic for a national TV show back in 1996, I've been closely following the activities of the funeral and cemetery industries. It's a big business folks, generating as much as $20 billion in annual revenues. And because I want to see you spend your money wisely, I've been collecting (and posting to my website) a wealth of information and end-of-life-related resources that you'll benefit from, including: Medical Directives/Powers of Attorney (boilerplate forms), fill-in-the-blank personal ID forms (since the one in your wallet's probably outdated) and more:
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