Last week I wrote about a California news item which involved the police finding a dead body in a car. A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times did a follow-up piece and as I suspected the emerging story is really sad. Death Ref has run several pieces on Death and the Economy and this most recent article fits the bill. The Times provides this addendum to last week’s story:
The two women met last year at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley and were unlikely acquaintances. One was a Costa Mesa real estate agent, the other a homeless woman [Signe Margit] who frequented the park. The real estate agent allowed the woman to sleep in her father’s old sedan. But sometime in the last 10 months, the homeless woman died in the car. And for reasons that Costa Mesa police are still trying to determine, the real estate agent decided not to report the woman’s death to authorities. Detectives said she drove the car with the mummifying corpse covered with clothing in the passenger’s seat. She used baking powder to reduce the smell.
I decided to post a follow-up piece since so many dead body stories function as macabre fantasy tales without an actual ending. It seemed only appropriate to end this particular story with a fuller acknowledgement of the hard economic times many people now face.
I am a little surprised that only a few people sent me this recent decomposing-dead-body-in-the-news article. Like so many of the other dead body stories on Death Ref this particular California tale is both macabre and sad. Indeed, it looks as if the economic problems currently afflicting a great many Americans played a role here. We’ve got an entire Death Ref section devoted to just Death + the Economy items. This most recent story also reminds me, a little bit, of the Pennsylvania case from last July.
More than anything, the Orange County prosecutor will have to look at the California statutes which define how and when a corpse is mishandled.
I have a hunch that no legal action will be taken.
And in case anyone is wondering, the smell described by the Police is the result of the body’s decomposing fluids seeping into the car’s interior.
This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”
They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)
Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.
The story of Oscar, the “Death Cat”, is making the rounds these days. From articles in Discover and the New England Journal of Medicine, to an episode of House to a recent posting on this Danish death-related blog, AND a newly published book, this cat gets around—but only if you’re about to die!
Oscar is a therapy cat who currently resides at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His special (and for some, disturbing) talent is seeking out and curling up on the beds of terminally ill patients near death. Then, as soon as they’ve passed, he jumps off the bed and disappears.
Some say the cat is able to smell certain ketones in the blood that are released during the pre-death process. It is similar, they say, to the reported cases of cancer smelling dogs. Others think it’s just a coincidence or that he just likes to snuggle up with the heating blankets often present on the patient’s beds.
I tend to think that Oscar is indeed aware of something beyond human detection. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that their olfactory senses are so sensitive as to detect almost infinitesimal chemical traces in humans. Think of cadaver or drug-sniffing dogs, for example. Smell is such a powerful sense in both humans and animals—although we humans are like a brick of rock compared to the finely tuned nasal capacity of certain animals. Fun facts: Bloodhounds have over 300 million olfactory receptors and the average house cat has about 200 million receptors. Humans have a mere 5 million (New Scientist). And for more about smell, check out The Smell Report by the Social Issues Research Centre. But why does Oscar feel compelled to lay with the patient? Is he trying to comfort the dying? Or is he just trying to send a message/warning to the living and the dying, that hey, someone is going to die here? Who knows. But I think it’s super fascinating. What do you, dear reader, think?
This will be the last post, for a while, on the dead bodies in Haiti. I decided to run this Miami Herald article because it does a good job of summing up the problems the Haitian people are facing. None of what has happened will be resolved anytime soon and this article highlights that fact.
The current stories emanating from Haiti are incomprehensibly awful. This Guardian article uses the word apocalyptic and that seems utterly appropriate.
A crisis situation of this enormity is compounded by the sheer number of immediate human needs. One of those key requirements is the rapid identification, removal, and burial of dead bodies. The problem in Haiti is that an already weak infrastructure is unable to handle the number of dead bodies produced by the earthquake. In this crisis situation, the normalized rules for handling the dead cannot cope with all the corpses.
And yet, something must be done with the dead bodies.
Part of the assistance being sent by the United States involves dispatching Disaster Mortuary Organizational Response Teams or DMORT groups to Haiti. DMORT is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and specializes in handling mass fatality situations. These are the kinds of individuals on DMORT Teams (as listed on the HHS website):
funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers, finger print specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, x-ray technicians, mental health specialists, computer professionals, administrative support staff, and security and investigative personnel.
Here is an article about a University of Florida Forensic Entomologist, Dr. Jason Byrd, who is already in Haiti with a DMORT group.
Private companies are also sending groups to Haiti. The main provider of mass disaster/fatality services in the private sector is Kenyon International Emergency Services. Kenyon is based in Houston, TX and owned by Service Corporation International (SCI). SCI is the largest global provider of funeral, cemetery, and cremation services and got into the mass fatality business in the mid-2000’s. I will write more about SCI and Kenyon at a later date.
For right now, both DMORT and Kenyon will be attempting to do the following things:
1.) Identify any of the dead that they can
2.) bury the dead in an organized fashion
3.) use a tagging system of some kind so that the dead can be (possibly) identified at a later date.
These tasks are made vastly more complicated by the rush to bury bodies in mass graves. There is a common misconception that dead bodies spread disease. That’s not entirely true and this CNN article covers these points. What dead bodies do create is a terrible smell. Decomposing dead bodies are also difficult to look at. When you multiply these problems by 100,000 dead bodies (this is just the body count estimate at this point) then immediate disposal of the corpses becomes easier to understand.
The following video clip from CNN sums up the situation:
It seems only too fitting. That a seven-foot tall Sumatran “Corpse Flower” will soon bloom at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I’m from Wisconsin so I can make all the jokes I want.
Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) it turns out that the Corpse Flower has made its way into the Death Reference Desk before. Last September, Death Ref Superstar Kim wrote the following:
The fascinating and frighteningly named “Corpse Flower” or amorphophallus titanum, as it’s scientifically known, will affront your sense of smell like no other plant on earth. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Sumatra (but grown in a few horticultural centers stateside), the Corpse Flower emits a rotten flesh smell that has people gagging for air within 10 feet of it.
You can read the whole post on death and smell here.
So remember everyone: when you go to Milwaukee don’t 1.) drink the water and 2.) don’t get within 10 feet of the local Amorphophallus titanum after lunch.
The smell of death is all around us. Sometimes it hits the nostrils like a hammer to the skull; other times it goes undetected and unnoticed — at least to us humans. A few recent articles got me thinking about the phenomena of scent in the presence of death, or even in one case as a substitute for death.
In an article (linked above) in this week’s Wired magazine, the universal “death stench” is revealed.
Scientists have discovered that insects from cockroaches to caterpillars all emit the same stinky blend of fatty acids when they die, and this sinister stench sends bugs of all kinds running for their lives.
But it is further revealed that…
Thankfully, human noses can’t detect the fatty acid extracts. “Not like the rotting of corpses that occurs later and is detectable from great distances,” Rollo wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve tried smelling papers treated with them and don’t smell anything strong and certainly not repellent.”
Whew! When I think of all the cockroaches I’ve lived with and killed over the years….
Of course bugs aren’t the only non-humans to release a deathly perfume. The fascinating and frighteningly named “Corpse Flower” or amorphophallus titanum, as it’s scientifically known, will affront your sense of smell like no other plant on earth. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Sumatra (but grown in a few horticultural centers stateside), the Corpse Flower emits a rotten flesh smell that has people gagging for air within 10 feet of it.
And then there’s this recent news item about a morgue in San Mateo, CA, that needed to be evacuated due to the release of a chemical odor from a body undergoing an autopsy. Apparently, when the body was opened up, it was discovered that the person had ingested acetone, a colorless flammable liquid.
Putrefaction is one thing, but the smell emitted from corpses that contain deadly chemicals takes things to another level. The book Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning up After CSI Goes Home delves extensively into the subject of how bodies and body fluids are handled like toxic waste and all the steps taken to ensure safe handling. The bioremediation field is one in which the containment of smell plays a big part, not only for those working in the field, but for those friends and family left behind after the clean-up is complete.
Our olfactory nerves are assaulted daily with all sorts of smells, some sweet and mouth watering and others profound and profane. However you look at it, our sense of smell lets us know we are very much alive.
Okay, so “robot” may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, Penn State chemists are working on detecting and identifying the properties and release patterns of the gases expelled during the decomposition of bodies. Detecting such gases, including “putrescine” and “cadaverine,” is useful for locating the victims of natural disasters or discovering covert burial sites and mass graves.
As presented at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Sarah Jones and Dan Sykes propose that more detailed forensic information — gathered from dead pigs, which have a decomposition process similar to humans — could lead to a portable electronic device that can sniff out corpses more efficiently and cost-effectively than traditional, training-intensive cadaver hounds. Analyzing the presence and levels of the more than 30 compounds released over the course of decomposition, such a device could also pinpoint the time of death, quickly and on site.
Human decomposition is a very complex process and has not been well studied at the chemical level. Studying the development of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) over a certain period of time, using pigs as an alternative to humans, could possibly provide important relevant forensic information about the unknown chemical composition of death. Solid phase microextraction fibers will be used to collect the VOCs that are released from the pig carcass during the early stages of decomposition. Once the compounds are collected, they will be identified and quantified using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The data collected will be used to determine if there is a true correlation between compounds present and the interval since time of death.
Poor pigs. Poor dogs. Gross gross gross all around. Go science!