Yes, it's possible for a corpse to explode during cremation
You were only supposed to blow the doors off... Exploding decomposing bodies are unlikely during cremation unless someone forgot to take the pacemaker out of dear uncle Joe.
Although many of us would rather not think too much about what happens to our bodies after we die, if you’ve ever come across one of the rare local media reports of an ‘exploding corpse’, you probably came away with more questions than answers.
The decomposition process begins just minutes after death – cells become deprived of oxygen and acids, and enzymes start to break them down. Body temperature drops and rigor mortis (the stiffening of oxygen-deprived muscles) starts to set in. Microbes that lived on and in the body during life, no longer kept in line by the immune system, start to digest the decomposing cells.
The body then starts to putrefy; soft tissues break down into a liquid and microbes ferment the body’s sugars, releasing gases like methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia in the process. These gases can build up inside a decomposing corpse and sometimes, if the pressure becomes too high, they can rupture the stomach.
So, an exploding corpse isn’t impossible, but it’s unlikely to happen during cremation because the body wouldn’t be allowed to reach the putrefaction stage; refrigeration or embalming can be used to slow decomposition until cremation.
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However, above-ground mausoleum caskets that are sealed completely can burst because of the pressure built up from trapped gases. For those intent on a mausoleum burial, an unsealed casket – which can ‘burp’ to release gases produced during the decomposition process – can avoid this risk.
The gases from putrefaction may not cause a corpse to explode during cremation, but an unexpected pacemaker could. In 1976, the mercury zinc batteries of a pacemaker exploded inside a crematorium in Solihull, breaking the brick lining of the cremation chamber and leading to new regulations on the removal of pacemakers, as well as other medical implants, prior to cremation.
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Asked by: Duru Günel and Kerem Günel, Turkey
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Dr Claire Asher is a science journalist and has a PhD in Genetics, Ecology, and Evolution (GEE) at the University of Leeds. She also works part time as Manager of the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, based at Imperial College London. Asher is also the author of Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet.