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JAMA 100 Years Ago
July 27, 2005


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2005;294(4):502. doi:10.1001/jama.294.4.502-b

In the prebacterial periods, more or less fear of infection from graveyards existed. Even to this day one occasionally hears the opinion expressed by medical men that burial underground as ordinarily performed is an insanitary method of disposal of the dead. While no disinfectant is equal to fire in prompt destruction of infectious material, yet all experimental and other investigations show conclusively that pathogenic microbes rapidly disappear as cadavers undergo decomposition after burial; furthermore, no evidence has been obtained to show that the numerous infectious organisms contained in dead bodies, human and animal, pass into the soil surrounding properly made graves in reasonably dry soil. Cholera and pest bacteria are not demonstrable after from seven to thirty days at the outside after burial in cadavers of patients who have died from either of these diseases. Typhoid bacilli are not found in bodies of typhoid fever patients buried for three months. Tubercle bacilli may persist somewhat longer, and Schottelius claims to have demonstrated virulent tubercle bacilli in bodies buried between one and two years. Diphtheria bacilli, pyogenic organisms, tetanus and anthrax bacilli all have been found to disappear in from a few days to two months or so. The remains of rabid animals lose their infectious powers in from two to five weeks after burial. The only organisms that possibly might infect the adjacent earth in case of improper burial are anthrax bacilli and tetanus bacilli, which then would assume the spore forms. In this country, in which it is becoming more and more customary to inject dead human bodies with formalin solutions, it is probable that considerable direct destruction of bacteria is accomplished through the action of the formalin. As decomposition advances in cadavers, the pathogenic forms are crowded out by the saprophytes. Proper burial in ground suitable for the purpose, i. e., not swampy and draining directly into the water supply, consequently can not be regarded as a procedure that merits condemnation because grossly insanitary.

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