Death + Biology Death + Technology Eco-Death

Soylent Green is Dead Bodies Eaten by Mushrooms

Green Burial Project Developing Corpse-Eating Mushrooms
Paul Ridden, (July 29, 2011)


The Infinity Burial Project
Jae Rhim Lee

Every once in a while I come across a new-dead-body-disposal-concept which I really like. Indeed, I really wish that I had tons of excess cash so that I could start my own dead body technology R&D company which would then develop innovative and exciting new ways to handle human corpses. We would be the Venture Capital worlds Death Angels. Or, if YOU happen to be a Venture Capital investor reading the Death Reference Desk (it could happen…) then drop me a line because I’ve got lots of great final disposition ideas!

Until that happens, I’ll confine myself to ye olde Death Ref.

Back in July, I came across this short Gizmag post on artist Jae Rhim Lee and her cultivation of flesh eating mushrooms. Actually she’s working with run-of-the-mill shiitake and oyster mushrooms and isn’t bioengineering some new kind of flesh eating fungus. Too bad, really.

Anyway, Jae Rihm Lee’s project taps into the burgeoning world of green burial technologies, a topic which Meg, Kim, and I have covered in depth on the Death Reference Desk (I strongly suggest reading Kim’s excellent Green Burial: A Review post).

Here is how Gizmag’s Paul Ridden explains Jae Rihm Lee’s mushroom idea:

The Infinity Burial Suit prototype is made of organic cotton and covered with an embroidered net of thread which resembles the growth pattern of mushroom mycelium, and that has been infused with mushroom spores. A special cocktail of minerals and spores will also be introduced into the corpse itself, that will encourage mushroom growth from the inside. Special make-up based on the spore slurry is also being considered that will quickly break down and assist the decomposition process.


The project is aiming towards the development of a natural burial system which will facilitate decomposition of the body, remediate accumulated body toxins, and deliver nutrients to plants in the surrounding area. Lee also hopes that the Infinity Burial Project will help raise awareness of the concept of death acceptance, rather than continuing to try and detach ourselves from our inevitable end.

In a nutshell, what Jae Rhim Lee is proposing would work. I’m not sure that it is any more cost-effective than just leaving a dead body to decompose in a forest but that’s a tricky legal situation. Besides, if a dead body, um, dies in a forest and is then devoured by mushrooms and no one sees it, then what fun is that? Besides torturing an already over used metaphor.

So I absolutely support the Infinity Burial Suit project, mostly because I can now embed the trailer for the BEST 1970s dystopian future film of all time: Soylent Green!

Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law

Postmortem on Frontline’s Post Mortem

Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America
Frontline, NPR, and Pro Publica (February 01, 2011)

Go Go Frontline. There are moments in this documentary on postmortem examinations in America and the attached medical-legal investigative personnel that made me physically groan.

Out loud.

And then slap my forehead.

None of the dead body images elicited any kind of response from me (shocking, I know). Rather, the interviews with some of the coroners and autopsy investigators were so painful to watch that I wondered if they really knew what kinds of documentaries Frontline makes. One of Frontline’s best investigative reporters, Lowell Bergman, is the on-camera interviewer and his abilities at making interview subjects squirm, especially those who lie or get caught in a certain-kind-of-truth-stretching, are phenomenal.

web-lagos_a_cadaverThe interview with Dr. Frank Minyard, the coroner for New Orleans, Louisiana, is some of the most cringe-worthy television that I have seen in a long time. A number of Death Reference Desk readers might know Dr. Minyard from his interviews about dealing with post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Minyard is a complex figure, to be sure, and he doesn’t end up looking so good in this documentary. Ironically, he has been interviewed in other Frontline pieces, so it’s not as if he had no idea what could happen.

But I digress…

Here, then, is the take away information from Post Mortem. 1.) The overall training, accreditation, and educational standards for American Medical Examiners needs to be uniform, rigorous, and regulated. As with the American funeral industry, for example, the education and licensing requirements are all state-by-state. This means that some states (and regions within states) are far more competent than others. In a nutshell, if you died and your death required a full investigation, then it’s better to die in some states than others.

Frontline produced a map of America which shows what kind(s) of postmortem investigation system(s) exist in each state. Check it out here.

The documentary’s other key point is that medical examiners and investigators need more money to do their work. This hardly comes as a surprise, since everybody wants more money to do their work, but the investigative labor being done involves guilt and innocence. I would always hope that the individuals given the power to provide evidence about either guilt or innocence, had the necessary funding to do the job. In some cases, this is not the case.

So watch this documentary. You can either view it right here or go to the Frontline website (linked at the top of this page).

It’s worth the 52 minutes and provides an opportunity to begin contemplating which American state you would want to die in…

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law

And the Corpse Rides Shotgun Follow-Up

Portrait Emerges of Woman Whose Mummified Body was Found in Car Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times (October 28, 2010)

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.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law

And the Corpse Rides Shotgun

Woman Drove Around With Mummified Body
Salvador Hernandez and Greg Hardesty, The Orange County Register (October 22, 2010)

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.

I know I know. Too much information.

Never Stop Learning.

Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

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.

Burial Cemeteries Death + Disaster

Haiti’s Anonymous Dead

As Haitians Flee, the Dead Go Uncounted
Damien Cave, New York Times (January 18, 2010)

Last home of country’s most famous families turns from place of respect and mourning into installation of horror
Ed Pilkington, The Guardian (January 18, 2010)

Following up on yesterday’s Haiti earthquake post, these New York Times and Guardian articles expand upon the rushed burial of the dead.

Burial Cemeteries Death + Disaster

The Impossibility of Identifying the Dead in Haiti

How can a country in the grip of an apocalyptic tragedy deal in a dignified way with its victims?
Paul Harris, The Guardian (January 17, 2010)

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:

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Too Many Unclaimed Dead Bodies for the Body Farm…

Indigent Burials Are on the Rise
Katie Zezima, The New York Times (October 11, 2009)

Regular readers of the Death Reference Desk will recognize that the nationwide increase in indigent burials is a significant trend. Since this summer, when Death Ref launched, we have routinely posted articles on the uptick in unclaimed dead bodies under the Death and the Economy category.

The lead from this most recent New York Times article sums up the entire situation:

Coroners and medical examiners across the country are reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families cannot.

What makes this article a little different than the others is that it presents some hard facts and figures on the wave of unclaimed bodies.

  • Oregon has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past few years.
  • About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state. The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state cremations, which cost $450.
  • Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did last year.
  • Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500 out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year.
  • The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35 bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have to,” he said.

These numbers present an interesting unclaimed dead body index, but the following point really jumped out at me:

  • In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year…

The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee was specifically built to study how dead bodies decompose in order to assist criminal investigations. The Body Farm needs, by its very definition, dead bodies to operate; even it (a place which requires corpses to function) had to stop accepting unclaimed bodies because there were too many of them.

I want to stress this particular point: There were/are too many unclaimed dead bodies for even the Body Farm…a place solely built to study dead bodies.

It is difficult to say where this situation goes next. I don’t expect to see the unclaimed corpse trend reverse anytime soon and, indeed, I expect it to go even higher. What I do think will happen, down the road, is that more and more of these unclaimed bodies will end up in bio-medical tissue products. But that is a post for another day.

Burial Death + Biology Eco-Death

How Dead Bodies Become Beetle Juice

To Casket Or Not To Casket? One Of America’s Great Field Biologists Thinks About Burial
Robert Krulwich, NPR (October 9, 2009)

NPR science reporter Robert Krulwich (also of RadioLab fame) did this short piece (it’s a little over five minutes long) on the decomposition of dead animal bodies and their consumption by beetles. He interviews Professor Bernd Heinrich, an expert on all things animal, insect and decomposition. Check it out!
I am all for being left to rot in the woods after I am dead. Based on my current body size, I bet I could feed thousands of beetle families. It would be my way of giving back to the natural world.

Death + Biology

The Nose Knows

Universal ‘Death Stench’ Repels Bugs of All Types
Hadley Leggett, Wired (September 09, 2009)

Cockroach Dead

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.

Death + Biology Death + Technology

Putrescine, Cadaverine, and Dog Job Stealing Robots

New Insights into the “Smell of Death” Could Help Recover Bodies in Disasters and Solve Crimes
American Chemical Society Press Release (August 16, 2009)

via SmartPlanet, “Smelling Death Electronically”
(John Dodge, August 26, 2009)

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.

According to the poster session abstract,

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!