When Arsenic, Old Cemeteries And Drinking Water Come Together

“You get sick just like the next cat, and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is.” —Louis Armstrong

In A Nutshell

Until 1910, arsenic was commonly used to preserve bodies before burial. When university professors started testing the water supply around Civil War–era graveyards 80 years later, they found that there was an unsafe level of arsenic leaking into the surrounding soil and, in turn, into the water system. While there hasn’t been much done about it, we knew about the danger long before the outlawing of the use of arsenic in 1910. In 1844, The Lancet published an article about the concerns of the arsenic content in the bodies of those who had died from poisoning, and it was found then that it did contaminate the surrounding soil.

The Whole Bushel

Arsenic is one of those things that’s had a number of uses over the years, and it’s also one of those things that we now know can be deadly. Unfortunately, one of its uses has had a rather bizarre afterlife, and we’re only catching onto the potential dangers now, even though they were suggested much, much earlier.

For decades, arsenic was used as a part of the embalming processes, all the way up until 1910. Before that, there were few options for keeping a body fresh throughout the wake and burial process. Keeping it on ice wasn’t an option, and when it came to embalming fluid, there were few things that had been developed. When the need arose to process bodies on a large scale—such as throughout the Civil War—the favored answer was preserving them with arsenic, killing all the germs and bacteria in the body that would eventually lead to decomposition. A single body took at least 6 ounces of arsenic (although some estimates suggest that some bodies required much more) to preserve. Needless to say, a cemetery full of people makes it likely that there’s a lot of arsenic buried there, too.

When those bodies decompose, they leak all sorts of substances into the ground. In 1990, University of Northern Iowa professor John Konefes started doing a little testing. He drew water samples from wells that had been dug on and near Civil War–era graveyards, and he found that the samples contained levels of arsenic well above what had been deemed safe for drinking water. While modern embalming fluids, like formaldehyde, are toxic, they also break down at a much faster rate.

Arsenic doesn’t break down so quickly, so it remains in the environment. Follow the water cycle, and arsenic that’s slowly leaking from Civil War–era dead is going to run downstream, right into the water supply.

Studies from the University of Toledo found that arsenic is also collecting in the soil of graveyards from the mid- to late-19th century. They also found elements that were associated with the building of coffins. The soil contained high amounts of lead, iron, copper, and zinc, all released into the ground with the decay of coffins. And considering that a 10-acre cemetery typically contains enough building materials to construct more than 40 houses, that’s a lot of material that needs to disintegrate.

It’s not just the United States that has something to worry about when it comes to the state of their old graveyards. In Northern Ireland, a high water table and constant flooding means that arsenic is entering the water supply and that formaldehyde is being rinsed out of corpses into the water supply before it has a chance to break down. Many Irish graveyards are in precarious positions, both near city centers and wet, boggy land, so there’s major concern about carcinogens leaking into the groundwater and accumulating to lethal levels.

Gravediggers in Ireland tell some horrifying stories, recounting attempts to bury people in rainy, flood-like conditions and finding them floating in water-filled graves before the burial could be finished. In some areas, it’s so bad that cemeteries flood even after the graves have been filled, and the standing water that rises to the surface has the oily appearance and the vile stench of decomposition and chemicals.

These concerns are nothing new. In an 1844 edition of The Lancet, an article discussed concerns of arsenic seeping into the ground and water from corpses. The story started with the report that a man had lost his wife to arsenic poisoning. Because they knew arsenic didn’t dissolve, they were worried that it would contaminate the surrounding earth as the body decomposed. They did some testing and found that the area around the graves of those who died from arsenic poisoning was, in fact, contaminated.

Show Me The Proof

The Lancet: “Arsenic in the Earth of Cemeteries”
Arsenic and Old Graves: Testing Procedures at Nineteenth-Century Cemeteries
Environmental Protection: Arsenic and Old Graves
UTNE Reader: Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment
Vice: Flooded Corpses Are Leaking Formaldehyde into Northern Ireland’s Groundwater