Monday, March 7, 2011

Medical Mondays: Decomposition Composition

Theresa Milstein has a fascinating question for this week.

"If someone died and was buried in a shallow grave in New England (about an hour northwest of Boston) for nine years, would only a skeleton and clothing be left behind? Or would hair, skin or anything else be left?"

Boy, this was both interesting yet gruesome to research. There's too much to cover in one post, so I'll just highlight some major themes on this topic.

(Warning: I hope you have a strong stomach for what follows! Be thankful I'm NOT posting any pictures...bleah.)

Stages of decomposition: a human body will go through a few stages, including a fresh stage, followed by bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry/remains. (For photos of these stages on a pig carcass, click here.)

Each of these stages can be sped up (with heat, moisture/humidity, exposure) or slowed down tremendously (in an oxygen-free environment, like peat bogs, or with very cold temperatures, acidic soil, dry environments, or lack of exposure to animals/insects).

Bacteria, outside the body and naturally occurring within the body, cause disintegration of the corpse. Early in decay, this microbial proliferation in turn releases gases and horrific odors. It's called putrification and causes the bloat stage of decomposition.

If the body is well covered in clothing, this may slow down decomposition. Being inside a structure (coffin, house) may as well.

Animals and insects active in the decay process can be used to accurately identify the timing of death. Blowflies (and their eggs, larva, etc.) are classically used in this timing process of early decay.

Hair and fingernails, being organic, will also break down and disappear with normal decomposition, but as we've seen in Egyptian mummies and peat bog mummies, they can be preserved as well.

Clothing decomposes depending on its type and the environment. Cellulose-based fabrics (cotton, rayon, linen) will degrade rapidly in soil, but will degrade slowly if the soil is alkaline (high pH). Protein-based fibers (silk, wool) will degrade slowly in acidic (low pH) environments.

Petrochemical-based clothing (nylon, polyester) will degrade very slowly or not at all, as there are no methods of decomposition in the natural world (yes, those polyester 1970's suits will outlive all of us, many times over.)

Adipocere, also known as corpse, grave, or mortuary wax, is a waxy substance caused by the oxygen-free metabolism of body fat by bacteria. It can look like a shell of wax in the areas where bodily fat used to be. It can also be black, grey, yellow, white, or have the consistency of wax, be semi-soft, or found in more liquid forms. Adipocere formation can occur in a cold, airless environment, such as a sealed casket, wet mud, or at the bottom of a lake. The pictures are hard to stomach. Google at your own risk.

The answer to Theresa's questions?
In northwest Boston, the soil can be loamy or mucky (yes, muck is a technical soil term, and yes, I spent too much time on this website researching soil northwest of Boston). But unless the body was put into a bog, there ought to be enough air in the soil to prevent mummification.

As the summers can be warm, we'd expect a normal process of decay. Being in this soil, a shallowly buried corpse would easily decay without adipocere formation over the course of 9 years. There would be little left of the body except a skeleton. There would be no hair or skin left.

As for clothing, only traces of clothing that were petrochemical based, such as polyester, or artificial shoes or soles, may still exist, or metallic bits from the clothing.

Here are some sites I used for gathering info, if you'd like to brush up on your forensics of body decay:

UK Website with topics on forensic corpse evaluation
Hair and Fiber decomposition in archeology
Post-mortem fate of human remains
Adipocere info
University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center aka "The Body Farm"
Tollund Man (peat bog mummy)

It was so interesting, but I did lose my appetite for about 24 hours after researching this. Hope you all recover as well!

Also, don't forget to check out Mental Health Mondays at Laura's Blog and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for some great psychology-themed posts!

74 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Fascinating! And a great question. Yes, a bit morbid, but still interesting.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a plethora of information. Thanks, Lydia!

Jessica Bell said...

Or in other words, just get hooked on 'Bones' ;o)

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Having gone through quite a few berevements in a short space of time I found this a wee bit morbid, unfortunately I read this just after having lunch,

Yvonne.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Cool post. I once considered being a forensic pathologist until I realized my stomach wouldn't be able to handle it. :D

Anne Gallagher said...

Wow, this is fascinating. Thanks for the question Theresa. Thanks for the answer Lydia.

I saw that pig thing on PBS once. EWWW!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Excellent post, Lydia. You're so awesome for doing all this. Thanks. =o)

Melissa said...

This is fascinating! You put so much effort into this and it really shows. Wow. Great post Lydia! (I was too chicken to go look at the pictures!)

salarsenッ said...

Interesting and a bit gruesome, is right. This is great info. I guess, we as writers, have a bit of playing room with cases like these because there are so many variables that could change parts of the decomposition. Thanks for the info.

Jacqueline Howett said...

Too early in the morning forme tolook at the pig, but interesting.

Maria Zannini said...

This is way cool!!

Oh, wait. Did I say that out loud? :grin: I love this stuff.

Thanks!

Sarah said...

Wow, Lydia. Thoroughly well done. And, ew.

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

My favorite day! Wow, you put a lot of research into this one and that is awesome. My stomach may have lurched a little but that's okay, it's probably supposed to on this type of subject matter. Exactly why I could never be in a field that dealt with this sort of thing...ever. Thankfully, the deaths that take place in my work are "self cleaners" they basically turn to ash. That's fantasy and mythicals for ya. But should I need to know about this...you are my resource :) have a great Monday!

Lisa Potts said...

Very thorough answer. I had a couple of friends that were morticians and they were constantly pulling out pictures of bodies they found particularly interesting. sometimes hard to stomach, but interesting just the same.

Matthew Rush said...

This is disturbingly fascinating, and goes along very well with my current series on research, although I haven't gotten to this part yet. I'll make sure to link to you tomorrow, thanks Lydia!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Eeep. A little sick, but I often wondered those questions myself.

Connie said...

Thanks for all the information.

The Body Farm is fascinating. I first googled it when I heard it mentioned in the movie Blind Side.

Carol Kilgore said...

I love learning about stuff like this. As long as I don't have to smell it I'm fine.

Angela Felsted said...

Lydia, you rock! I love this post, how well researched it is, how informative, and your definitive answer at the end with all the links.

Chris Phillips said...

amazing info. I'm going to go re-bury some... i mean I have a friend who needs to... drat! neither of those work here. I find it hilarious that mucky is a technical term as it tends to mean dirt mixed with feces.

Old Kitty said...

Erm. I know Theresa Milstein is such a fabulous gorgeous blogger so my mind boggles! LOL!!!!

Thank you Lynda for such a thoroughly horribly fascinating read. Now for some lunch! Thanks goodness I'm a vegetarian! LOL!

Take care
x

Bossy Betty said...

Very cool! What does it say about me that I thoroughly enjoyed this?

Deb Salisbury said...

Fascinating! I'm another one who enjoyed this post. (Though I didn't click on the pig link. :ick:)

jbchicoine said...

I'm not planning to exhume any characters in the near future, but I will definitely keep this one bookmarked!

lbdiamond said...

Interesting topic...much gruesomeness. I did an elective with the Westchester Medical Examiner's Office and saw various states of decomp--yucky stuff. Good thing there's no such thing as scratch 'n' sniff posts.

Meredith said...

Wow, what a complete answer! I'm hoping not to have any decomposing bodies in my stories, but if I do, I'm prepared now! Thank you!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So polyester never dies? That's scary.

Erin Cole said...

This is fantastic stuff for a horror writer! Thanks, Lydia.

Kelly said...

Great stuff, Lydia! I always learn new info on your Medical Mondays. What a great service you provide for us writers. THanks!!

Lenny Lee* said...

hi miss lydia! yikes! im reading this and eating my lunch. ack! how long could that body be buried before it could be a living dead? ha ha.
...hugs from lenny

Heather said...

Ick and fascinating at the same time. I'm sending a few of my thriller writer and mystery writer friends over to check out this post!

Olga said...

This is a scary post for common, unprepared people who aren't very close to the realities of the medical profession. However, it was extremely interesting for me to read.

Talli Roland said...

Wow! What a thorough answer. Thanks, Lydia.

And I won't be visiting Theresa any time soon. Hehe!

Sarah said...

This will be helpful should I decide to become a serial killer. :)

Sweet Virginia Breeze said...

Very informative! This is a subject I have wondered about at times, but never researched. Thanks for all the information.

runawaybride said...

Very interesting question and well explained answer.

Holly Ruggiero said...

Interesting post. Thanks for taking one for the team in the research.

The Golden Eagle said...

That's an interesting question--and a very thorough answer! Thanks for all the information.

nutschell said...

How amazing is this! Very useful info to know, especially if you're writing crime/thriller novels. Now I'm thinking of ways I can make use of this in my fantasy manuscripts...

Jennifer Hillier said...

This was fascinating! And timely! I'm actually starting to research this exact thing right now, so thank you for the information and for the links. Much appreciated. I need to stop by more often!

Abby Minard said...

Oh wow, great list. Looks like you did some extensive research. Which is good, because if I ever need to know that I don't have to look it up and see the pics ;p

mist of the blossom rain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mist of the blossom rain said...

Wow! This was very interesting. I looked at the pig pictures, which were...educational.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Argh. I won't be following those links, oh, no. But I love your line about the polyester suits! That might make a funny ghost story.

Krispy said...

Wow, that's pretty gross but vastly interesting! I don't know if I could brave anything that had pictures though. Ancient remains I can deal with, but anything gooey - um, no.

Indigo said...

I have no problem reading or writing gory details. Viewing them, not so much. I found this post fascinating. Thanks for sharing. (Hugs)Indigo

Slamdunk said...

Neat, educational, and well gross stuff Lydia. I was discussing decomposition rates in terms of homicide investigation in a class last week--students always seem to have a morbid interest in the topic.

Colene Murphy said...

Wow! That is some serious detail! And that isn't even all of it!? Wow. Thanks for all the interesting info!

Alleged Author said...

I remember when I used to believe nails and hair grew after death (turns out it was decomposition making it an optical illusion). This was a creepy post, and I am so blaming you if I have nightmares tonight!

Munk said...

Oh, so that explains it. Now I can refill that stinky hole in the backyard.

taio said...

superb

The Happy Whisk said...

Great stuff.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Wow. What detail! You are a SuperTrooper for your blog friends.

And you know what the irony of this information is? It will help me in certain aspects of the romance between my 13 year old Victor Standish and his ghoul friend, Alice. Hey, you don't reject a pretty girl just because of an eating disorder. Not if you're Victor, smitten with neon-blue eyes and pale, lovely legs.

Ah, the red-smeared teeth get a little getting used to though! LOL.

Karen Lange said...

I agree with Laura P. - a bit morbid but rather interesting. Thanks for your time to put this together!

Jonene Ficklin said...

Wow, Lydia, you did a great job of showing what happens without making it too gross for those of us with weak stomachs. I didn't click on the links, but thanks for including them, in case we need to see. You're awesome!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Bit morbid, but certainly fascinating and interesting. Thanks for this great post.

On another note, I have already sent you the Time Turner. Don't forget your promise, be the dear friend that you have become, and send it back after your work is done. :)

Tracy said...

That wasn't anywhere near as gross as I would have expected it to be. Then again, I didn't actually click on the link that would lead me to any pictures. (Sadly, that's more because I'm at work & don't want them to possibly think I'm a freak. My morbid curosity was begging for me to do it!)

Caryn said...

Ooh! That is cool! I can see how it could be challenging to research.

J.L. Campbell said...

Very useful information for those of us who write about murder and mayhem. Interesting stuff. Thanks.

Phoenix said...

This is fascinating! I always wondered if the hair and nails continued to grow after death.

I'm so NOT googling any images, thanks. :)

LTM said...

grodie grodie grodie! bleah! :p But the whole time I was reading, I was thinking my husband would actually love this post. But he's a big Silence of the Lambs fan, and that's all I could think of while reading... :p

you so smart~ ;o)

Regina said...

Really great post. I learned a lot today from it. Now I really feel like a CSI agent. Creepy cool.

projectfraeya said...

You have no idea how useful this is... thank you so much.

Toyin O. said...

Very informative, thanks for sharing:)

Ciara said...

Great job. I love my CSI shows. LOL.

L.A. Colvin said...

I learn so much from your post. All this info just begs for a story. Thanks for educating us.

Have Mercy! Killer Reviews said...

I hate thinking of death, but it was an interesting read.

Also, I'm passing the Stylish Blogger Award your way. You can check out the details here.

Pam Torres said...

Fascinating! So glad Matt recommended I check you out. I'm a research junky! CSI look out I know better now!

Christopher said...

Well that's interesting in a "I'm glad I ate breakfast before I visited your blog" kind of way.

Ghenet said...

This is disgusting but SO interesting! I'm really impressed that you took the time to research this. I took a forensics class in high school and we learned all about this stuff. It was a great class!

li said...

Utterly fascinating! I did some research for a post on medical uses of leeches and maggots. You'd never know I was the most squeamish kid in school at one time. And yes, I'm about to click on the photo links! Great post.

The Words Crafter said...

eeewww!!! Extremely interesting, but I also have a vivid imagination :)))

M Pax said...

Thanks for not posting pictures, so I didn't have to spit my licorice out. :D

Wow. Very intriguing information. Thanks, Lydia.

Tasnim said...

I love to read about your experiences! You write beautifully about this. changeparts !!! I have enjoyed reading your articles. They are very well written. It looks like you spend a large amount of time and effort in writing the blog. I am appreciating your effort.

 
ALL CONTENT © 2012 THE WORD IS MY OYSTER / BLOG DESIGN © 2012 SMITTEN BLOG DESIGNS