(ORDO NEWS) — In Portugal, which has seen natural mummification of bodies after burial, there is a real crisis associated with the fact that human bodies mysteriously do not decompose after burial.
To save space, local laws require bodies to be exhumed regularly so that skeletal remains can be placed in smaller containers.
But many of the bodies simply do not decompose, resulting in trauma for families whose loved ones are repeatedly removed from the grave, only to be placed back to decompose further.
The main problem is that no one really knows what happens to the bodies buried in coffins.
Scientists from Portugal are now working to find out the cause of the strange mummifications.
Faced with the problem of overcrowding in cramped urban cemeteries, Portugal introduced the concept of temporary graves in the early 1960s.
The idea is simple: A decomposed body takes up less space. Bones can be packed in a smaller coffin and moved to a less spacious final resting place, such as special boxes in walls in cemeteries.
“We don’t have room to create new cemeteries or expand existing ones” in cities, says Angela Silva Bessa, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Coimbra who studies Portuguese cemeteries.
Three years after burial, the family of the deceased may receive a letter warning them that the remains need to be moved soon.
According to the law, the body can only be moved if it has decomposed to such an extent that it is only a skeleton, without remnants of soft tissues.
To test this, gravediggers must dig up the body and examine it. If the body is not decomposed enough, it is buried again, and the process is repeated every two years until it decomposes.
A study of cemeteries in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, found that between 2006 and 2015, between 55 and 64 percent of bodies were not completely decomposed when first exhumed.
Paulo Carreira, funeral home owner and head of Portugal’s national funeral association, said families usually do well the first time.
But repeated exhumations can be very emotionally devastating.
In some cases, it may take decades of reburials and reburials before the body reaches its final resting place, Carreira said.
And for some of these bodies, the process is virtually endless: They mummify.
Unlike the specially preserved Egyptian mummies, this happens spontaneously. Natural mummification usually occurs when the body dries out so quickly that decomposition simply stops. This has been observed in extreme environments such as deserts or glaciers, or in extreme heat and cold.
The reason why this happens so often in Portuguese graves is still unclear.
Silva Bessa and her colleagues studied what could slow the decomposition of these bodies in Portugal as part of her PhD project, the first of its kind.
With the consent of her relatives, she collected samples of the bodies and the soil around them in five cemeteries.
“It’s just amazing,” she said in an interview. “In the same section of the cemetery, different stages of decomposition are observed.”
Some of the bodies are completely skeletonized, while others are still decomposing, she said. Others are mummified from head to toe.
“Even on the same corpse, I can have my whole body skeletonized, the pelvis is in a state of decay, and my hands are mummified. So you can find a little bit of everything,” she said.
Silva Bessa tested eight soil properties that could affect decomposition, including temperature, acidity, moisture, density, heavy metal contamination, and organic matter.
So far, she has not been able to find an answer to this question. “I honestly thought I would at least find a link between soil properties and body composition,” she said. “But I didn’t.”
Her next step will be to test whether the substances people have taken in life, such as whether they smoked or took certain medications, could be a factor.
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