Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dead and Buried

As many of your know I have an obsession with dead bodies. Not in a weird creepy way, but in a fascinated with what happens to the body after we die kind of way. When I was first trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I had decided I wanted to be a Medical Examiner and conduct autopsies on people that had passed. The concept of figuring out how a person passed away, by opening them up, was something that made me light up inside. The problem with my dream - medical school and a medical rotation. I loved dead bodies, but I didn't want to work on alive bodies.

My next line of action became forensic anthropology since I was also fascinated by bones, how bodies decomposed, and how finding the remains of the dead. When I started out in my Undergrad degree I was actually a Forensic Science Major at Penn State. It became my goal at that time to work at the Body Farm. For those of you who don't know the Body Farm is a research facility at the University of Tennessee that studies the affects of decomposition in different environments. They have acres of fenced off land where they put dead bodies in difference elements such as buried under the ground, hanging from trees, submerged underwater, etc. They then document the stages of decomposition, the types of insects that populate the bodies, and how the elements affect the chemistry and look of the bodies. Some might think it to be disgusting and morbid but I find it fascinating. The problem with this dream - excessive courses in Chemistry and Physics.

My next line of action then was to go back even old and study bones of the ancients so I switched to basic Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology. What fueled this was my obsession with two different areas of the world and how bodies were preserved there. The first was the bogs in Scotland. I've shared with you all before the story of the "Bog Man" of Scotland who was an ancient man that was almost perfectly preserved in peat moss. He was so well preserved in fact that he was thought to be the missing man from a town over and his supposed killer was arrested. Once DNA results were run it was obvious that this was in fact not the same man; that's when further research was done in the bog. Many bodies were found dating back all the way to the 17th century. The composition of the peat moss acted as a barrier from the elements to almost completely preserve the bodies.

The other example of preservation from the ancient times that I love is Pompeii. Now my obsession with this actually stemmed from my love of geology and volcanoes which tends to go hand and hand with archeology so I was still in the same realm. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, ash fell in buckets all around the Pompeii area. When people died from smoke inhalation, burns, etc their bodies fell were covered with ash that acted just as the peat moss from the bogs and shielded the bodies (seen in the picture above). When archeologists found the bodies, they were mummified into the positions that they died in. Once again some find that morbid, I find it fascinating.

My next line of action in my quest to find that anthropological topic I loved was to work in a museum. At Penn State I helped design exhibits on evolution and that when I became obsessed with a even older kind of preservation: fossils. I learned all I could about the discoveries of hominid fossils and had way too much fun at times "playing" with the casts of homo floresiensis (of which more information has come out as of late that I'm planning to write about hopefully next week when I gather more info), homo habilis, homo ergaster, and more.

After I graduated I spent 5 months unemployed so I volunteered at a museum where one of my fellow collections committee workers was also obsessed with the dead. His obsession was with graves. So through him I got to learn about how the people of Laurel, Maryland (which was the historical society I worked for) buried their dead. I even got to go on a quest to find the missing grave site of a horse that had run on Laurel's Racetrack.

So for me, death isn't something that gross and disturbing. I'm of the belief that when I person is dead, their soul moves on leaving only their shell. We still remain respectful of that shell but it is also fascinating to figure out what happens to that shell after. The body does amazing things when it is alive and does equally amazing things when it's dead. 


Kallan Kennedy said...

So cool!! I want to know some cool things you've discovered that the body does when it has ceased functioning. EXPOUND, woman!!

Sam Curtin said...

Lol! Isn't it cool? Some may call me weird but it truly is fascinating. One of the more gross of the things is the release of gasses. The body will expand to almost twice it's size when it's decomposing. Pretty gross at the same time as becoming fascinating. Eventually the gas deteriorates and body starts the decomposition phase. The gas that is released is actually what the smell is when people talk about "the smell of decomposing flesh." All in all the body takes between 50 - 100 days to completely decompose. Yes, it a wide margin because there are so many different factors that play a role in the process.

If a body is in a dry or cool place it'll last longer. If a body is in a humid or warm place it'll decompose faster. Once thing that shocked me when I studied forensic archeology is that water actually slows down decomposition rate. I know I was one that watched a lot of CSI, Law and Order, Crossing Jordan and I always thought that bodies decomposed faster when submerged.

Another thing that fascinated me is how the muscles seize up before the body starts to decay. See upon death, neurons can die within minutes. Skin cells though ten to last for days because they are able to metabolically perform without oxygen. Its' known as "anaerobic fermentation" and lactic acid builds up as a result of this. This Lactic acid causes rigor mortis (the seizing of the muscles). It is the same thing that happens to muscles after an intense workout and makes them feel stiff but rigor mortis lasts for about 36 hours. Once it releases is when the decomposition itself starts.

Kallan Kennedy said...

Right. I knew rigor set in within a few hours. I also knew about the gases.. didn't know about the skin cells. So, when you say it decomposes within 50-100 days, how long does it take for bones to decompose? I have to assume you also mean that if these bodies are left alone and not pumped full of formaldehyde, right?

Sam Curtin said...

Yes the 50 - 100 days is assuming that the body is left alone (sorry should've specified). And really like I said above, the whole process can be sped up or slowed depending upon what hkind of environment the body is it.
As you pointed out, embalming (with formaldehyde, or formalin) can preserve a body, so that it remains recognizable several months after death, but within a year, bones and teeth are usually all that is left. I am not sure sure about what role the coffin plays since I haven't dealt with this issue, but they may, in addition to embalming slow the decomposition process even more. Depending upon the type of soil that they body is buried in, the bones can last for decades. If the soil is damp, the bones will decompose much more quickly since moisture gets into them.

As I'm sure you know, Egyptian Mummies were embalmed using a different process than that of today. That and their hot, dry climate the bodies last longs. In addition, their internal organs, but leave the heart, for it was the essence of the person. The absence of these internal organs slowed the decay down significantly.

That of course is a very simplified answer as each case is different. That's why the Body Farm was created, to study all different body types in different environments.

Kallan Kennedy said...

Totally fascinating. I loved reading and watching documentaries about the Egyptian embalming process.. how inventive was that? I also loved when they discovered those bodies in the Scottish bogs.. who knew a bog could preserve a body so well? So cool that you have an interest in this stuff. I love the idea and the science around it, just not the whole stinky process.. lolol

Sam Curtin said...

It really is amazing the science behind all of it. And yes the Egyptians were so ahead of their times! The bogs though I think are perhaps my favorite example of "mummified" corpses. I think that stems from the fact that I learned about them first back in middle school (obviously reading it on my own since decomposing bodies were a taboo topic in my Christian school) and that's what got me obsessed with bodies in general.

Whozat said...

I'm sure you already have, but if not, you should read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.

Sam Curtin said...

I actually haven't and now I'm excited to read it. Thanks, Beth :)

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