In the field with Doctor Death

Through the last decades, scientists have published many reports about the development and the birth of humans. But when it comes to the end of human lives, this is far from the case: in 2019 there is still much unknown about what actually happens to the body when we die. 

Text and photos by Geert Braam

It’s a grey and cool November day, when Ronald-Jan Oostra opens the door of a secret cemetery, not far from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam’s district Holendrecht. With its size and the green fences bordering the area, it looks like an abandoned tennis field. Inside, the grass has grown and even some young oak trees come up. 

Five people are buried in the soil of the Arista field, although there is space enough for 40, Oostra explains. He is a 54-year-old professor of anatomy and embryology at the Amsterdam University Medical Centre. He is also the manager of the hidden cemetery. “These people in the ground have donated their body to science and agreed that it would be used for this specific purpose.” 

Decomposition process

For two years, the field has been used as a cemetery that is totally dedicated to investigations about what actually happens to a dead body, once it’s buried in the ground. There is much unclear about the decomposition process. It is  the first and still only cemetery of its kind in Europe, Oostra tells. “There are such places as well in the United States and Australia, but they are different than here.” 

Among the bushes and grass, lots of sensors are put up to track the bodies”

According to him, the unique aspect is that bodies here are put in the soil, without a coffin. The five anonymous bodies are put in the right back corner of the cemetery, where the soil is the least moist.  This investigation site is different than similar investigation places in the USA, where the bodies are placed in the open air. 

Among the bushes and grass, lots of sensors are put up to track the bodies. Also the air and the soil are equipped with sensors. They deliver non-stop data for investigation purposes. “We have a weather station, which measures eighty statistics, for example air humidity and temperature,” Oostra explains. 

The bodies contain sensors as well. “Scientists who do research here can take biopsies to investigate the status of the tissue, cells and DNA too. They all fall apart. Also we measure the microbiological life, i.e. what do little insects do to the bodies?” Besides, once or twice a year, investigators exhume some of the bodies, “so they can see the state of decomposition with their own eyes”, Oostra explains.  

In a tube at the edge of the cemetery, wires transport the data from the bodies to a shed. Inside the shed, a computer stored in a wooden closet saves a huge amount of information. The few investigations are mostly about the postmortem interval, but Oostra cannot say much of the results yet. Despite of that, the few results he has seen are “tiny and modest”, as he says. “It’s just an indication about the state right here and now. For more general results, more investigation sites like this are necessary.”

Postmortem interval

The bodies and their data are only used for specific investigations. One term that is leading in those, is postmortem interval. It is in ordinary words is the time between death and when the body is found. “Many lawsuits (for example of murder) fail because the exact time of death is sometimes unclear,” Oostra explains. Forensic students get to know which processes happens by dead body measuring. And that is happening right here.  

Anneke Koster, teacher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science.

There isn’t much knowledge available of the human body decomposition. But the information about this decades taking process, is mostly in the hands of forensic investigators. Anneke Koster is a teacher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science and she can tell lots what happens when someone dies.

Koster tells what happens quickly when someone dies. “The breath and the blood circulation stop, which means there will not be any oxygen in the blood. The consequence is that important materials, like proteins, can’t be transported anymore.” But meanwhile, new processes will start.

The forensic teacher adds: “Some kinds of bacteria take benefit of the broken down cells. Mostly the stomach and the liver will break down first. It takes time before the brain gets demolished by the bacteria.”

But not every decomposition is the same. The speed of a human body breakdown depends on a few conditions. “The health situation counts, like was the person sick? Or did the person pass away inside or outside? Also, temperature has an influence on the breakdown process. These are some examples, Koster explains. For example: When a body is found in a warm environment, like close to a heater that permanently is turned on, the risk that the body will mummificate rise: “It will look like the skin turns into a leather bag”, the teacher knows.

From body to skeleton

Oostra and Koster both say it takes quite a while before the skeleton is left over. “It takes decades before the biggest part of the breakdown is accomplished,” according to Koster. But it depends on the state of the body, she nuances. “It will happen faster when a person died with open wounds. If so, insects and bacteria take benefit from these spots.” 

The professor at the University Hospital, Oostra, tells a similar story. “Due to the several conditions, we expect it can take 20 to 30 years until a body is completely broken down.” So when you pass away, and we all do once, your organs disappear step by step.