Face it. At some point all of us are going to shuffle off this mortal coil and enter the abyss. But what happens with what is left behind? The process of decomposition is undignified and a little horrifying, but understanding death helps us face our fate head on.
To assist, below are ten unusual facts about corpses.
(1) Some Cadavers Become Wax Statues
Under certain circumstances, corpses can become covered in a thick wax-like substance called ‘adipocere’ – also known as ‘mortuary wax’. This substance is produced when bacteria metabolise body fat causing a waxy cast over fatty tissues, internal organs and facial tissue. The result? Corpses appear like patchy mannequins covered in a rubbery white substance. The 19th century physician Augustus Granville famously made candles out of the substance, confusing it for a preservative applied to mummies.
(2) ‘Death’ Keeps Changing
The medical definition of ‘death’ keeps changing with advances in technology. In the 18th and 19th century, death occurred when the heart and lungs ceased to function. But starting in the 20th century, our old definitions of death became more and more problematic. Brain scans revealed the possibility that cardiopulmonary function could be preserved even with little brain activity to speak of. Moreover, technology allowed us to keep hearts beating and lungs filling without the need for a functional brain stem. The need for viable organs has led to ‘beating heart cadavers’ – technically dead bodies where blood flow is kept pumping to ensure viability for donation. The current medical definition of death requires either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. However, who knows how new technologies will reshape how we view death in the future.
(3) Sometimes Corpses Appear Drunk
Measuring the blood alcohol content of bodies can be very difficult, as bacterial fermentation in the gut during the purification process produces ethanol as a by-product. Because of this, forensic toxicologists analysing bodily fluids have to be very careful about inferring state of inebriation before death. They get around this limitation by taking fluid samples from tissue far away from gut bacteria such as the virtreuos humour: the gelatinous material filling the eyeball. At least we get to die as we lived – with a stomach full of booze!
(4) Dead Bodies Are Very Impolite
Corpses in the process of decomposition fart, burp and groan due to the build up of bacteria generated gasses. The escape of gases through the mouth is thought to be one of the explanations for the moaning trope in zombie fiction. The build up of gas can also bursts internal organs and can even perforate the skin in certain circumstances, making the job of forensic pathologists difficult. Gassy corpses is also an issue for funeral directors – if a casket is not well ventilated on a hot day, corpses have even been known to explode during funeral processions due to the build up in pressure.
(5) Gravity Marks Your Body With Forensic Clues
When your heart stops beating, gravity slowly pulls your blood towards the ground. After around two hours, a clear pinkish mark can be observed on the skin. This process, known as livor mortis, is very helpful for forensic investigators who can tell if a body has been moved a few hours after death by reading the pink clues left on the body. Livor mortis also acts as a rough time of death for investigators.
(6) Nobody Dies of ‘Old Age’
Despite common usage, age is not a ‘cause of death’. Instead, the most common causes of death amongst the elderly are heart disease, cancer and stroke. Whilst this may seem like a trivial distinction, it is an important one medically. So why are older people more likely to die? One of the key players are ‘telomeres’: small caps of nucleotides which protect chromosomes (the bundled bits of DNA inside our cells) from harmful chemical reactions. As we get older, telomeres get shorter and chromosomes are more likely to get damaged. As a result, we are more susceptible to certain pathologies such as cancer. Reversing this shortening processing is a key aim of anti-ageing and longevity research.
(7) Why Bodies Smell ‘Off’
Any process which results in a lot of bacterial activity is going to smell bad – think rotting meat out in the sun. But what is it about decaying corpses that make them smell terrible? Although many chemicals make up death’s aroma, the key culprits are Cadaverine (which comes from the bacterial breakdown of the amino acid Lysine) and Putrescine (which comes from the bacterial breakdown of the amino acid Arginine). So, what does this wonderful cocktail of death smell like? At early stages of decomposition the smell has been noted as ‘sickly sweet’ with a hint of coconut oil and wax candles. However, once the tiny microbes really start going at it the smell as been described as more akin to off meat with elements of boiled cabbage, vomit and rotten eggs.
(8) Some Bodies Have a Grasp Reflex
Although most people are aware of rigor mortis – the stiffening of the body’s muscles about four to six hours after death – a process known as ‘cadaveric spasm’ is much more immediate. Occurring soon after death, this poorly understood process can cause bodies to grasp at objects on the ground such as grass or weeds. Although rare, it more commonly occurs during violent or frightening deaths. Most famously, Kurt Cobain suffered cadaveric spasm and was found tightly clutching the shotgun he used to take his own life.
(9) Death Boners Are Not Common
Although a common motif in dark comedies, erections following death actually aren’t that common. Rigor mortis largely stiffens the skeletal muscles of the jaw, arms and legs. In contrast, the process of getting an erection is largely the result of the relaxation of smooth muscle and the engorgement of the penis with blood. The lack of blood pumping through one’s veins after death makes a death erection unlikely – although not impossible. Death erections have been observed in deaths by hanging, largely as a result of strong pressure to the cerebellum before death.
(10) Not Always So Cold
Although a lack of metabolic activity will eventually cool corpses to room temperature, in some circumstances a process known as ‘postmortem caloricity’ can cause body temperature to stay the same, and even rise soon after death. Thought to be the result of chemical reactions in the liver, post-mortem caloricity can raise a body’s temperature by as much as 20C after death. This can sometimes pose issues for forensic investigators, as body temperature is sometimes used as a measure for time of death.
Drunk, gassy and impotent may not be the noblest end for our dignified lives but it certainly should fill us with a sense of humility. Hopefully, these corpse facts have made you feel a bit better about entering the great beyond and have sparked your morbid interest to learn more about the intriguing world of death.