Anthropology/bones in water


My name is Darci. I have a question. I would like to know how long would a bone take to decompose in water. My brother was killed in 99. His death was ruled a suicide. My family exhumed in 2012. Because we have never believed he would kill himself. After we opened the casket it was full of water. some  of his bones are missing left humerus and right ulna. As I looked at the pictures from the 2 autopsy I noticed a hole in the left scapula also his left clavicle was in two. So I am asking how long does it take for a bone that has been prepped for burial complete covered in water take to decompose? Thank you for you time. I would appreciate a quick answer since we will exhume him again this Wednesday.

ANSWER: Hi Darci,  

There are a lot of factors involved.  1). Were his remains embalmed 2) what is the pH of the water in the coffin 3) if was a water tight coffin how did water get in? 4) missing bones may not be unusual depending on circumstances 5) holes in the scapula is not uncommon, it is a rather thin bone. 6) a broken clavical  may also not be unusual. Especially submerged, bone can get water logged and more easily broken.  7) if the coffin is water logged is it ground water or from flooding?  8) if from flooding, be careful and avoid physical contact as it could conseal pathogens.  

Depending on the level of acid in the environment around the bones, bone can deteriorate very fast, and potentially in less than a year if very acidic.

I'm not sure I answered your questions.  If you can find answers to any of my points above, perhaps I can provide a more in depth response.

I'm very you lost your brother.  The fundamental question may remain unanswered,  if so, reserve fond memories and then move on.  

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: To answer some of your questions. Yes he was embalmed.  He was in a very expensive casket probably the most expensive out there. At least this is what the funeral home has showed me. Also he was in a vault. We really don't know where the water came from. Underground?  I don't know that. Also my mother asked to donate his tissue.  The first pathologist said he had been dead to long and he did not donate. I believe my brother was murdered. Why would only the two bones scapula and clavicle be decomposed more on the left than the right? We did not go through with the exhumation on Wednesday. The funeral home is helping to fund out what happened to him with the help of a forensic anthropologist.  But I would love your advise as well. BTW we have moved on and have very fond memories.  Just trying to get a murderer off the streets. Also their are a lot of hole in this investigation.  Money stolen, insurance, bones completely missing. Very bizarre.  Thanks for helping I really appreciate it.

Hi Darci,

Depending on the method of embalming, I am surprised that no more than just bones remain.  Also very expensive coffins are generally air tight and a vault would keep water out as well.  Of course we are 90% water so some would be in the coffin due to decomposition. But this should be absorbed by all of the bedding in high end coffins.  As for the stolen items, that is a subject for the police.  Missing bones on the other is a bit strange.  Is it possible that he carried a  donations card and the parts were harvested?  


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Ralph Salier


Business Anthropologist. Business negotiations in multiple cultures and working with multiple cultures in the business arena. Broad understanding of business practices and business "ethics" in different parts of the world.


25+ years in international procurement and negotiations.


MA Anthropology, Proximics

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