March 27, 2008

Corpse Preservation

Stupid Question ™
July 2, 1998
By John Ruch
© 1998

Q: It was big news last year when they exhumed the body of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who died in 1970. Was he really well-preserved like the news stories said?

A: Cleveland doctor Sam Sheppard, eventually acquitted of his wife’s unsolved 1954 murder following a “trial of the century,” died in Columbus, Ohio in 1970 of alcoholism-induced liver disease.

Sheppard’s son, Sam Reece Sheppard, has long sought to quell lingering suspicions that his father was guilty of murder. On Sept. 17, 1997, he had the corpse exhumed for DNA testing, which recently indicating Dr. Sam was innocent, or at least had a partner in crime.

Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj, who helped conduct the testing, confirmed for me that the corpse “was very well-preserved and in excellent condition.”

However, even the finest-looking corpses are moldy, leaky and vampiric-looking.

“No body that’s been buried for 27 years is going to be mistaken for alive,” says Balraj. She said Sheppard’s body showed “some evidence of decay.” While declining to be specific, she did say no body parts had skeletonized.

Since cemetery corpses aren’t systematically studied, it’s hard to say if Sheppard’s preservation is unusual. The record of other celebrity exhumations, as partially detailed in Norman and Betty Donaldson’s 1980 book “How Did They Die?”, doesn’t reveal any particular trend.

Sheppard was buried six feet down in a coffin (also well-preserved) and vault, in a temperate climate.

A coffin probably keeps out insects and heavy rainwater for a while. A vault is a slightly larger cement or metal casing that prevents the coffin from collapsing under the weight of earth. It no doubt slows bugs and water as well.

Perhaps most importantly, Sheppard’s corpse was embalmed, according to Balraj. This means it was shot full of preservative chemicals.

Modern funeral home embalming is meant to delay rotting for maybe a week—long enough to display a pleasant-looking corpse. If done well, it may preserve the corpse for longer.

But it’s probably not enough by itself, and is no guarantee of even short-term preservation. Pope John Paul I’s embalmed body started releasing unpleasant gases while still on display; the heavily embalmed body of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin started falling apart after four years of display.
Sheppard “benefited” from good embalming, sturdy boxes and a cooperative environment, looking reasonably undead 27 years after burial.

And all for nought: after the DNA testing, he was cremated.

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