Sunday, December 1, 2013


If you think this is going to be a tame article on the geology of rocks that make up tombstones, scroll back through The Earth Story to some safe post on super volcanoes or catastrophic earthquakes or being wiped out by asteroids before it is tooooooo late… 

In this post, I am going to deal with the nitty-gritty spooky feature of graveyards: they are places where your body is meant to rot! The geologic environment of a graveyard affects just how this happens and, in poorly selected gravesites, doesn’t happen at all.

Squeamish yet?

First, we have to assume you’re going to die. I am, you are, we all are. No zombies allowed here: this is REAL science. What will happen to your body when you die? Since everyone on Earth is now expert on how bodies decompose due to the prevalence of CSI on global television, let me merely remind you that the rate a body rots within the ground is a function of factors such as temperature, humidity, aerobic conditions, water availability, acidity, chemical composition (of both you and the grave), and bacteria population. For a pretty fair description of the processes in action, try this:

There is even a mathematical-sounding formula called Casper’s Law (I don’t know if this is named after the friendly ghost) that states “a body left in the open air decomposes twice as fast as if it were immersed in water and eight times faster than if it were buried underground.” There are optimal conditions and combinations of conditions present for each of these factors promoting decomposition: there is an optimal temperature range for decomposition, an optimal humidity, optimal worm population. And if there isn't?

You've seen the documentaries – the desiccated bodies left from the Incan sacrifices, Otzi the frozen Neolithic Man of the Alps, catacombs in Italy, Celts left in bogs way too long… The effect of a cemetery gone wrong most often results in the production of a mummy. Too dry? Mummy. Too cold? Mummy. Bodies kept in anaerobic conditions? Mummy. Grave under groundwater, particularly one with acidic waters and tannin? Mummy.

Imagine you’re a geologist sent to inspect a potential cemetery plot (imagine that it’s Halloween to make things even better!) (Actually, I’ve done this, though thankfully not on Halloween.) There’s a great place on that hillside, really scenic, just below the rising moon – but it’s situated on an active landslide. And yes, several graveyards in local Greek villages have slipped down the valley, distributing relatives in multiple states of disrepair all over the place. No good!

But what about this quiet valley, with the willow tree and mossy path, a surreal fog on the ground, how lovely! but… unfortunately, the water table here is too high, and the water tends to stagnate. You won’t rot here, you’ll mummify, uck!

Oh here’s a great place! Water percolating through loose sands, just perfect conditions except… where does that water go to? See down the hillside? That’s the village spring. Unless you want to drink fluids liberated during decomposition, it’s to be avoided.

Let’s look at the soil. Yes, a cemetery should have soil, good soil, not just coarse rocks. If you want a good population of bacteria to do the main job in decomposition for you, you need dirt. It’s a shame that vineyard took up all the best dirt.

Pick up that rock, go ahead. Take a look. What’s that beneath it – a root? Ahhh. Perfect location! Worms already present, dirt healthy, drainage good, not too hot, not too cold, why has that root crawled off the rock, why is it crawling onto my boot, why is it…

Make sure your potential cemetery is not haunted before it becomes one.

Photo: Icelandic Cemetery courtesy of Johan Stellar
The Hearse Song performed PERFECTLY by Harley Poe.

A worthy video to watch during the witching hours: National Geographic Ancient Graves Voices of the Dead
And several other scientific references on graveyard geology:
How Bodies Rot in Graves:
And… Mummies!

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