What you should know about exploding caskets

Some of the priciest caskets are prone to burst.

Josh Slocum
August 11
Josh Slocum is executive director of the nonprofit watchdog organization Funeral Consumers Alliance. He co-authored Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.

Before you pay for that pricey casket, make sure it won’t explode. (Rich Legg/iStock)

Putting dead people in buildings was never smart engineering. Mausoleum burial began as the prerogative of the powerful, providing the perception of a dignified end to a life of esteem. The majesty of the Taj Mahal and the wonder of the Egyptian pyramids carried the idea into the 20th Century. Now heavily marketed to ordinary Americans as the cleaner and classier alternative to six feet under, community mausoleums – with their rows of concrete vaults — appeal to grieving relatives grossed out at the thought of bugs, water and worms mingling with their loved ones’ remains.

But dead bodies have a tendency to rot, and when they do so above ground, the consequences are – to put it nicely — unpleasant. Separating the living from the dead with nothing more than a thin concrete wall was destined to fail and the funeral industry is making money off  public ignorance. Funeral homes push pricey caskets for above-ground burials that ultimately exacerbate mausoleums’ inherent flaw.

You’ve never heard of exploding casket syndrome (ask your mortician if it’s right for you), but funeral directors and cemetery operators have. They sell so-called “protective” or “sealer” caskets at a premium worth hundreds of dollars each, with the promise that they’ll keep out air and moisture that — they would have you believe — cause bodies to rapidly deteriorate. Like Tupperware for the dead, they “lock in the freshness!” with a rubber gasket.

But, in reality, you can’t protect a corpse from itself. While you’re insulating grandma from the outside air, she could be stewing in her own fluids, turning into a slurry from the work of anaerobic bacteria. When the weather turns warm, in some cases, that sealed casket becomes a pressure cooker and bursts from accumulated gases and fluids of the decomposing body. The next time relatives visit grandma, they could find her rotting remains oozing from her tomb in the form of a nauseating thick fluid.

This is not an exaggeration. It’s simple science. There’s no way of telling how common exploding caskets are, since no official agencies are charged with tracking the problem. But as head of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, I frequently hear from families around the country who have sued cemeteries and funeral homes for exploding caskets or have caught mausoleums secretly propping open caskets to prevent a gas buildup. Whole product lines have been created to keep your relatives’ remains from tarnishing the fine establishments they inhabit. There’s Kryprotek, a plastic lining that surrounds caskets to enclose their leaky contents. And there’s Ensure-A-Seal, essentially a bag for a box, which recently ran this advertisement in a funeral trade magazine:

Let Nature Take Its Course

We know what happens after the crypt is sealed. Your clients do not know, or do not want to know . . .  Don’t let natural processes destroy your facility’s reputation.

At bottom, the problem is fraud. Casket-makers and funeral homes know sealer caskets don’t preserve bodies, yet too many peddle lies about the preserving powers of overpriced boxes to grieving people whose emotions are easily manipulated. Federal policy forbids funeral providers from deceptively claiming that caskets will delay the natural decomposition of human remains for long or protect a body from bugs or other disturbances, when they can’t.  But every time a funeral provider pitches a “sealer casket” they are doing exactly that. Funeral homes should stop hawking these caskets and mausoleum operators should stop allowing them. The dead will naturally decompose, no matter how much money we spend on bags and boxes. Consumers should know that and refuse to be sold a bill—or a box—of goods at the graveyard.

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