If reopening then investigation into the death of Natalie Wood gets a full head of steam, it’s quite possible that her casket might be reopened as well — Her body will have to be exhumed from Pierce Brothers Mortuary Westwood Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles where she has been buried for exactly thirty years just a few steps from Marylin Monroe.
Westwood Cemetery can be found at the corner of Glendon and Wilshire in Los Angeles — so close to the hustle and bustle of West Hollywood hotspots like The Ivy and The Abbey.
According to the initial investigation, Natalie Wood fell overboard from a yacht after her husband Robert Wagner and film costar Christopher Walken had gone to sleep in their respective cabins.
According to the coroners report, Wood fell overboard and hit her face while trying to get into the boat’s dinghy and landed in the water. There were other indications that she had tried to climb from the water onto the dingy, but the goose down jacket she was wearing absorbed over 4o pounds of water and thereby weighed her down to the point that she could not pull herself up into it.
With 40 pounds of water weighing her down, Wood may have floundered in the water for several terrifying minutes before she finally ran out of strength and drowned. Her body was found the next morning floating the Pacific and the dinghy was found lodged in a cove near Catalina Island.
An exhumation of Wood’s body could be a grisly thing. Just about all exhumations are grisly things to watch, but after 30 years in the ground, one wonders how Natalie Wood would look and what good a re-autopsy would do.
After her death, Natalie Wood was autopsied and bodies that have been autopsied do not preserve very well. The embalming process takes advantage of the body’s circulatory and lymphatic system to carry the preservative fluids to every nook and cranny of the body — every inch of tissue is saturated and preserved indefinitely. Some embalmed remains last for decades while others succumb to the elements and go through a thorough process of decay.
Natalie Wood’s body, being an autopsied body, had to be embalmed differently because a medical examiner cuts out the internal organs of the body and thereby disrupts the natural flow of the circulatory system. A mortician can’t pump embalming fluid into an autopsied body the same way he would with an unautopsied one. The fluids merely spill into the abdominal cavity where all the blood vessels have been severed. the brain soaks up a lot of embalming fluid but an autopsy either removes the brain or at least seperates it from the circulation of the embalming fluid. A brain soaked in embalming fluid is great at preserving the face and head because it gradually releases preservative fluid over the course of years. Natalie’s head is probably empty and thusly it was filled with preservative substances that really don’t do much of anything.
Because of this disruption, a mortician has to embalm the body in a more localized way. Arms, legs and other areas of the body are filled with embalming fluid, but this process is essentially useless and only done to preserve the body for a few days. Lee Harvey Oswald, an autopsied body, was exhumed after 5 years and there was virtually nothing left of him. Even his head had become dislodged from his body. It was a pretty disgusting site to behold. Others have been more grisly.
Here is a report from someone who knows first hand about how disgusting this exhumation thing can get and gives us an idea of what happens to the autopsied body versus the unautopsied body.
“I was working one summer as a caretaker at a large cemetery near my home. Part of my duties were helping to dig graves and often we had to move caskets from the ground in order to make room for another family member who was going into the plot. Sometimes caskets would break apart and the remains would fall out onto the ground because the casket was full of a disgusting smelling fluid. The older guys on the job called that “grave juice.” Other times we would peek into an exhumed casket when the state inspector opened it for a brief moment — they only do that to make sure that somebody is in there and that we actually put them back in the ground. Sometimes the bodies looked like sleeping people. I saw one guy who had been dead for 37 years who looked like he died yesterday, but the casket still stunk when it was opened. Other times I saw bodies that had only been dead for a year and they were disgusting and bloated and their faces were decayed and horrible — like something you would see in a zombie movie.
My boss explained that an autopsied body didn’t keep very well and rotted even faster than a body that hadn’t been embalmed at all. It was pretty disgusting.” [Anonymous 2004]
So what will they find if they do have to exhume Natalie Wood? If she was buried in a sealed casket, it will probably be pretty gross. A sealed casket is a terrible thing because it locks out air and the anaerobic bacteria that lived in the body grow like crazy and make the whole thing a giant mess of rotted gangrene. These are, after all, the same bacteria that cause diseases like tetanus and gangrene and botulism. They exist best in a world without oxygen.
If, however, Natalie Wood’s casket was not a sealed one, or the seal was broken as so many cemetery workers often do intentionally, she is probably a stinky skeleton. I don’t know what any medical examiner will be able to learn from that. The only time re-autopsies have changed the ruling in a case is when new technology was developed to detect drugs or poisons. Natalie Wood drowned and at the time of her death, an autopsy showed that to be the cause of her death was that she had a high alcohol level and she had drowned.
Maybe an exhumation will be done simply to scare someone who knows something to come forward. Or it will force any person who may have pushed her overboard to fess up to a lesser charge — none of this seems likely. But what is strange is that Natalie must have screamed for help, but perhaps out on the open water her voice just drifted away like the dinghy she tried so desperately to climb aboard.