Burial Death + Disaster

1,000 Irradiated Dead Bodies in Japan

Up to 1,000 Bodies Left Untouched Near Troubled Nuke Plant
Kyodo News (March 31, 2011)

I started this new post on the aftermath in Japan before today’s announcement that another earthquake had hit the country and that a potential tsunami was forecast. These most recent events will only compound Japan’s problems but they also contribute to a large post-disaster narrative: Japan is dealing with scenarious that have only ever been imagined on paper. Everything that has happened is an unbelievable list of ‘What If’s.’

What if:

  1. There’s an unexpected and violent earthquake which strikes in an area that not many seismologists predict.
  2. The unexpected earthquake is then followed by an unprecedented and completely destructive three stories tall tsunami wave.
  3. All of these events then lead to massive infrastructure collapse which then cause half-a-dozen nuclear power reactors to either shut down or go into meltdown.
  4. Leading to an unprecedented battle between a small group of Japanese engineers attempting to control the nuclear meltdown and exposing themselves to ultimately fatal levels of radiation. This last point is pure speculation but it is difficult to imagine anything else happening.
  5. Every single one of these different but related events leads to the creation of a large nuclear radiation exclusion zone and means that a 1,000+ bodies are left in that exclusion zone because it is too dangerous to retrieve the human remains.

It is difficult to think of another multiple level disaster on this scale. The only examples that I have come across are Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The article at the top of the page discusses the dead bodies left within the radiation exclusion zone. This is a story that I’m particularly interested in following, since the funereal practices normally practiced in Japan have already been thrown into disarray. I wrote about that situation here.

This LA Times article captures the ongoing postmortem crisis many next-of-kin are facing.

Shoichi Nakamura is having trouble sleeping and eating. Her brother, sister-in-law and their child have been missing for more than a week. She’s been to three evacuation centers and pored over countless lists at disaster centers.


That’s left her with a dilemma she shares with a growing number of Japanese in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami: When do you give up hope that your relatives are alive? And how do you mark a death in tradition-bound Japan without a body to cremate?

These photos in the National Journal visually capture all of these dilemmas. The images of destroyed cemeteries and mass burials are particularly jarring.

I have one final comment, and it’s about the February earthquake in New Zealand. The Guardian ran the following article last week: New Zealand’s chief coroner says some of those killed during earthquake may never be identified.

It seems likely that some (possibly many) dead bodies in Japan will not be identified for a long time to come. It may take months, if not years, before the irradiated remains can be safely recovered and handled.

I mention all this because if there is any country in the world that will do everything it can to identify the dead, it is Japan.

Burial Death + Disaster

Japan Begins Mass Burials

Hasty Burial for the Dead Collides With Tradition
Michael Wines, The New York Times (March 24, 2011)
Families of the tsunami’s victims faced a mass burial in a seaport town in northeast Japan, where mathematical reality has made cremation impossible.

99%. That is the number which kept going through my head when I saw the tidal wave sweeping through northeast Japan.

99% of all Japanese dead are cremated. Indeed, Japan is always at the top of international indexes on annual cremation rates.

But when I saw the remnants of those Japanese villages, I knew that there would be too many dead bodies for the local crematoria– in the event those crematoria were even functional.

It has taken a while for this kind of story to finally emerge from Japan, but the New York Times is now reporting on mass burials of the dead. The turn to mass burials is a radical break for contemporary Japanese funereal traditions, but when confronted with the sheer numbers of dead, little choice remained.

There is one section of the article which I take slight exception to. Towards the end of the entire article, which is well reported, the following point is made:

It was the bureaucracy’s best effort to imbue Wednesday’s interments with the dignity of genuine funerals rather than what they were: an unavoidable response to a potential public health problem. Later in the day, Buddhist monks would come to the site to pray over the graves.

The often cited fear of potential public health problems is not entirely accurate. Last year, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the Death Reference Desk discussed the widely held misconception that dead bodies pose a public health concern. It is true that people working around masses of dead bodies should wear normal protective gear (gloves, masks, etc.) but those bodies aren not going to rampantly spread disease.

Meg wrote a particularly insightful piece on this very topic: The (un)Diseased Dead.

All this said, I understand the push for burial. Dead bodies decompose and they smell and all of this can compound the broader tragedy.

It is also important to note that Japanese officials appear to be doing something which stands in stark contrast to the Haiti situation: the dead are being identified before burial. Thousands of dead bodies were buried in Haiti without any ID’ing of the corpses. Identifying each of the bodies is important for many of the families and it helps establish who is known to be dead vs. missing and presumed dead.

As usual, we will keep an eye on this particular facet of the Japanese disaster.

Out of respect for the dead.

Death + Popular Culture

“Last Words” Scholarly at Last

Last Words of Notable People
William B. Brahms. (2010). 680 pages.
Haddonfield, NJ: Reference Desk Press.
ISBN: 978-09765325-2-1
Press kit with sample pages (PDF)
AmazonOrder from Amazon


The DRD was kindly offered a review copy of this book to be released in September 2010. DeathRef librarian Meg Holle took it to task, after a survey of similar works at local academic and public libraries.

A person’s last words — whether written in a diary or directly preceding the death rattle — tend to intrigue we the living, especially if the deceased, while alive, was otherwise fascinating or important. Even prosaic word salads have a special nihilistic charm. Yet throughout history, in addition to poor recordkeeping or merely mishearing or misremembering, we have been tempted to force meaning or change entirely the last words of the dead to preserve their dignity or prolong their profundity.

Many compilations of last words reflect this — that it is more important to be poetic than precise or to admit that we simply do not know the truth, disregarding scholarship and accuracy to perpetrate myths and cults of personality for their inspiration or wit. Such works tend to focus on the creative delivery of only a few people, while others merely list quotes devoid of context. Rarely do they name verifiable sources or show interest in or even admit to ambiguity beyond a brush-off disclaimer buried in the preface.

Last Words of Notable People is an ambitious effort to remedy this. Compiled by librarian and historian William B. Brahms, this reference work contains the final words of over 3,500 noteworthy people. With a focus on politicians, religious leaders, military people, writers, artists, musicians, athletes and criminals, last words are collected throughout history and around the world, with Americans and Europeans best represented. Arranged alphabetically by last name, each entry contains a short biography, the person’s last words, the context in which they were spoken or written and the source of the quote.

Last Words of Notable People especially excels at being unequivocal about ambiguity. It documents not only last words and their variations, but also completely different quotes when applicable. It also includes well-known last-word contrivances, clearly marked as “doubtful” in the text.

The book claims to be “the most authoritative compilation of Last Words ever assembled.” In a nice twist of honest, functional scholarship, its authority does not derive from claiming settled truth, but by acknowledging and sourcing the contradictions. While Brahms has necessarily made interpretive decisions regarding the content — what to include, omit, call “doubtful” and so forth — the reader is presented with evidence and citations for further investigation.

What exactly is scholarly interesting about last words, anyway? Let’s find out. I randomly examined the entry for civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was shot to death while giving a speech. After a brief bio, it states:

Last Words: “Hold it! Hold it! Let’s cool it! Let’s be cool, brothers!” Spoken to the three assassins who shot him multiple times.

Variation: “Let’s cool it brothers.”

For comparison, Alan Bisbort’s Famous Last Words (2001) has Malcolm X saying,

“Brothers and sisters, stay cool!”

…in effort to “maintain order in the assembly hall.”

While similar on the surface, these two versions are quite different. In the first quote and its variation, Malcolm X tries to deescalate the situation while also confronting and chiding his killers. In the second, he’s addressing the crowd. It’s reasonable to think that in the confusion, words were misremembered and to whom they were delivered, misconstrued.

But in this second version of “brothers” and being “cool,” “sisters” is also thrown in. Because that’s what he said? Or because of the politically correct, socially expedient reality that it’d be unfortunate for history to remember Malcolm X as forgetting women? — not just in the audience that he was gunned down in front of that day, but all women in all struggles, as this message apparently is, for all time, for everyone to keep their composure and dignity in the face of extreme adversity.

That is, if this was even actually spoken at all.

Brahms lists sources for both variants of the quote. Bisbort has none (to be fair, Bisbort’s work, with its stylish illustrations, is intended for trivial pursuit, not serious scholarship — yet if it’s incorrect… that’s a problem). It’s uncertain why Brahms did not list “Brothers and sisters, stay cool!” as alternative last words. The alleged quote may not be common enough to warrant inclusion, even with a “doubtful” notice, or perhaps it isn’t verifiable at all.

Suffice it to say, the depth of research that was required for this work is staggering, as is the potential range of inquiry it will assist and inspire, as historians investigate not only what people said, but all the ways in which last words are remembered, misheard and completely made up.

This death librarian is sold.

On the downside, while the dictionary format is intuitive and makes the most sense, the book is difficult to browse beyond aimlessly jumping around unless you have a specific person in mind. Additional points of access would improve usability and usefulness, such as a subject index by occupation, or perhaps a list of all the people with “doubtful” last words.

Finding entries by the content of the quote, as some works have done, would also be helpful, though such a task would be arduous and probably contentious (e.g., does Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s final utterance, “Strike the tent!” [“doubtful,” by the way] demonstrate valor or delusion?). The book does have an index, but it appears to consist mostly if not exclusively of personal names, making it largely redundant with the already alphabetical name entries.

Bottom line for Academic and Large Public Libraries: For as comprehensive it is, Last Words of Notable People is undeniably a niche resource. But the historians and biographers and general weirdos who run across it will flip out and fall in love as they discover — confirm, deny and further complicate — the final words of the famous.

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.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Death: a High-Risk Investment and High-Tax Evasion Tactic

Grim Risks of Reaping Death’s Rewards
Leslie Scism and Larry Light, Wall Street Journal (February 6, 2010)

Slemrod Sees US Tax/Death Experiment
Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research (January 13, 2010)

Here’s a death and dirty money twofer for this lovely Saturday. Enjoy!

The Wall Street Journal reports on “life settlements” — investors buy elderly people’s insurance policies with the stipulation that they’ll cover the premiums while the person is still alive and then cash in upon death. As a result, the sooner death occurs, the greater the return on investment. Unfortunately (??) some people don’t go so easily…

Carol Tonzi, a court reporter in Palmyra, N.Y., sank $51,700 into partial ownership of a $5 million policy in 2003 … She says her tax preparer touted the investment as “safe and secure” and said her money in five years would grow to $82,720, a 60% increase.

But Ms. Tonzi, 52, is still waiting for the policyholder, now 89, to pass away. Over the past three years, she says she has shelled out an additional $15,000 in premium payments. She is suing the tax preparer … alleging negligent advice. “It’s a mess,” she says. “If I wanted to gamble, I would have left the money in the stock market.”

Ouch. In a similarly gruesome vein, Improbable Research (via BoingBoing) posted last month about estate taxes and timed deaths:

Our prize-winning research showed that when estate taxes are known in advance to be changing, some people time their deaths (or have their deaths timed for them) so as to save their heirs money. The evidence: in the U.S. history of estate taxes, when tax rates went up, there were less (than otherwise) deaths after the law change, and when tax rates went down, there were more deaths after the law change. …

Now the U.S. Congress has granted us a social scientist’s fondest dream — or worst nightmare — the perfect “natural experiment.” As of January 1 of this year, the U.S. estate tax has been abolished for the year 2010, and is scheduled to be reinstated in 2011 with rates as high as 55%. If our findings (and those of our colleagues in Australia and Sweden) are right, there some would be “moved” from the end of 2009 to the beginning of 2010, as some rich folks hold on to bequeath their assets tax-free. Of course, the really morbid stuff will happen at the end of this year, when dying in December of 2010 will incur no estate tax, but dying beginning in January 1, 2011 can trigger a tax liability equal to more than half the taxable estate. It’s being called the “Throw Momma from the Train” tax provision.

Weird, sad and huh? As one of them groundling proles who will inherit naught but gewgaws, good looks and bad circulation, I’ve never been compelled to imagine such things. Sounds like being super rich is unexpectedly macabre.

Burial Death + Technology Death + the Law

Premature Burial Device Patents

Brace yourself for some library science / classification / database search nerdery… or skip below to see a list of U.S. patents related to premature burial!

This morning I ran across a list of suspected premature burials with some interesting contemporaneous newspaper clips (it also links to How to Survive If You Are Buried Alive from the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook — nice!).

It got me thinking: I love all those turn-of-the-twentieth-century inventions designed to save you in the event of your premature burial — bells attached to strings, extraneous air shafts and electrical devices that would detect your stirring corpse. I figured there must be patents on these, and sure enough: the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides them online.

Unfortunately their interface is exceptionally ugly, with a series of dazzling numbers and codes that make me salivate as a librarian oh sweet luscious data! but claw my eyes out as a blogger wanting to share something cool with reg’lar folk. In addition, many are images only that required a plugin I couldn’t make work. Argh! It’s all right there, and yet… not.

So I looked to our information overlord, Google. Google Patents draws data from the USPTO in the slick and familiar Google preview and downloadable PDF format (including all the fascinating line drawings). But, search fiend that I am, I could not in wholesale fashion extract what I wanted, either via keywords or using the US Classification field in the Advanced Search.

This allegedly corresponds to the PTO Manual of Classification for US Patents. The proper code, however — class 27 (undertaking), subclass 31 (life signals) — returned only a few results, with such oddities as “Optical Illusion Wear” and “Martial Arts Uniform Top.” A patent for a gi classified as a life signal device? Only if it improves one’s ability to karate chop out of a casket.

Stung by this death info travesty, I used the patent numbers from the USPTO list (generated by classification code) and found them on Google Patents, for the delight and convenience of the interwebs. (I did exclude a couple that were irrelevant, and there are a few below that seem more concerned with the living’s ability to monitor and view the dead… eek.) The dates below reference the filing date for the patent, not the issue date. Enjoy!

US Patents for detecting “life signals” / preventing premature burial

1984 — Apparatus and method for detecting body vibrations

1980 — Coffin alarm system

1954 — Safety release for refrigerators

1924 — Coffin
“This invention relates to an improved coffin and seeks, among other objects, to provide a coffin wherein a body may be preserved more or less indefinitely” with a sight tube extending from coffin to above ground “so that the body may be readily viewed in the coffin as desired.”

1921 — Attachment for coffin
“This invention has for its prime object the provision of a simple, inexpensive and durable device which can readily be applied to burial caskets for the purpose of enabling relatives and friends of deceased persons to view their features after interment.”

1912 — Life-detecting apparatus

1909 — Alarm for indicating life in buried persons

1909 — Apparatus for preventing human beings from being buried alive

1908 — Grave attachment
“This invention relates to new and useful improvements in grave attachments… whereby a body may be observed or watched after being interred.”

1907 — Safety-coffin

“This invention is distinguished from the already known arrangements by the fact that an opportunity is afforded the apparently dead person, when he awakens, of opening the coffin automatically, with very slight exertion on his part, so that he can immediately obtain a supply of fresh air and may afterwards leave the coffin.” In other words, it’s SPRING LOADED.

1903 — Apparatus for signaling from graves (Crosby and Henry)

1901 — Apparatus for signaling from graves (Griffith)

1900 — Apparatus for preventing premature burial

1899 — Electric device for indicating the awakening of persons buried alive

1899 — Coffin
“An improved coffin which permits the body to be kept during a certain time until decomposition sets in and, moreover, enables the person inclosed in the coffin to give warning if there has been a mistake.”

1897 — Apparatus for saving persons buried alive

1886 — Coffin
“My invention has relation to a coffin wherein the lid is provided with transparent doors or panels held down normally upon the lid against the tension of springs and adapted to be released and thrown upward from the lid upon the operation of a device located within the coffin.”

1886 — Apparatus for saving people buried alive

1886 — Coffin
“If the person buried in a state of trance opens his eyes on returning to consciousness, he sees light through the glass disks of the lid and will, on coming to his senses, unconsciously make a movement by which the mechanism which stands under the pressure of the springs is immediately released and the springing up of the lid is effected.”

1885 — Coffin
“We also supply the coffin with an electric battery, the wires therefrom leading though the air inlet pipe to an alarm on the outside of the ground, the circuit of said alarm being closed by a slight movement of the revivified person.”

1894 — Grave-signal

1893 — Grave-alarm

1892 — Coffin-signal

1891 — Annuciator for the supposed dead

1887 — Device for indicating life in buried persons

1885 — Burial-casket

1884 — Safety apparatus for the preservation of the dead until their burial

1882 — Device for indicating life in buried persons

1882 — Grave-signal

1878 — Improvement in coffin-torpedoes

1871 — Improvement in life-detectors for coffins

1868 — Improved burial-case

Burial Death + Disaster

The (un)Diseased Dead

Infectious Disease Risks from Dead Bodies Following Natural Disasters (pdf)
Oliver Morgan, Pan American Journal of Public Health, 2004;15(5):307–12.

In the wake of the deaths from the Haiti Earthquate — 200,000 at the most recent estimate — officials are struggling to provide appropriate and respectful body disposal. In an earlier post John mentioned the common misconception that dead bodies carry disease. Bodies are especially horrific in such quantities and conditions, with the persistent and inescapable smell of death. The otherwise natural inclination to mourn and respect the dead is overpowered by the sense of urgency to obliterate the reminder and ongoing reality of this collective trauma.

Enter mass graves: a “solution” that offers out of sight, out of mind — but little by way of preventing disease, as it’s not actually a legitimate threat to public health. A 2004 literature review (linked above) from the Pan American Health Organization on the management of dead bodies in disaster situations available offers some insight:

Victims of natural disasters usually die from trauma and are unlikely to have acute or “epidemic-causing” infections. This indicates that the risk that dead bodies pose for the public is extremely small. However, persons who are involved in close contact with the dead — such as military personnel, rescue workers, volunteers, and others — may be exposed to chronic infectious hazards, including hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, HIV, enteric pathogens, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Suitable precautions for these persons include training, use of body bags and disposable gloves, good hygiene practice, and vaccination for hepatitis B and tuberculosis. Disposal of bodies should respect local custom and practice where possible. …

Concern that dead bodies are infectious can be considered a “natural” reaction by persons wanting to protect themselves from disease. However, clear information about the risks is needed so that responsible local authorities ensure that the bodies of disaster victims are handled appropriately and with due respect.

An editorial in the same journal issue (“Epidemics Caused by Dead Bodies: a Disaster Myth That Does Not Want to Die”) argues that expedient mass burial does have an effect on public health — not by preventing disease, but by exacerbating grief and endangering mental health:

Denying the right to identify the deceased or suppressing the means to track the body for proper grieving adds to the mental health risks facing the affected population.

It’s hard to say what has a worse impact over time: being surrounded by unburied, dead strangers for an extended period, or never being able to find the body of a deceased loved one. I’m willing to bet the latter.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

No Tittering of Mourning Magpies

Magpies Hold Funerals for Fallen Feathered Friends
Lester Haines, The Register (October 21, 2009)

Animal Emotions, Wild Justice and Why They Matter: Grieving Magpies, a Pissy Baboon, and Empathic Elephants (paid access only)
Marc Berkoff, Emotion, Space and Society (August 27, 2009; doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.001)

Reporting on an unfortunately toll-access article from the journal Emotion, Space and Society, Lester Haines at The Register relays the claim that magpies appear to hold rituals for dead pals:

Dr. Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: “One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Similar behaviors have been observed in other magpies, as well as in ravens and crows. Unfortunately The Register article is brief and the real deal’s under lock and key (well… $9.95). Several readers have weighed in in the comments, however, and probably without reading the actual research, many dismiss the claim as bad science and overt anthropomorphism, an accusation Beckoff has previously countered with, “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions.”

Hear, hear! (Full disclosure: I am closing in my 10-year anniversary as a vegetarian.)

Then again, I do enjoy rigor in my rigor mortis research — I’d like to know more about it. As for the post title, I love animal / social group names. Everyone knows it’s a murder of crows, many, an unkindness of ravens. Magpies are a gulp, tiding or tittering. Tee hee! And no one would be laughing at a funeral. At least not these magpies.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Addicted to Loss

After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away
Fran Schumer, New York Times (September 28, 2009)

Craving Love? Enduring Grief Activates Brain’s Reward Center
Mary-Frances O’Connor, et al., NeuroImage 42 (2008) 969–972.

As the New York Times reports, more than a million people per year suffer an “extreme form of grieving” following the death of a loved one — an anguishing bereavement that lasts more than six months after a death. The condition, known as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, has spurred its own methods of therapy and is under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-V, the standard for diagnosing mental disorders, due out in 2012.

Schumer also summarizes a 2008 study in the journal NeuroImage (linked above), which looked at the brain activity of people suffering from complicated grief:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that when patients with complicated grief looked at pictures of their loved ones, the nucleus accumbens — the part of the brain associated with rewards or longing — lighted up. It showed significantly less activity in people who experienced more normal patterns of grieving. …

The nucleus accumbens is associated with other kinds of longing — for alcohol and drugs — and is more dense in the neurotransmitter dopamine than in serotonin. That raises two interesting questions: Could memories of a loved one have addictive qualities in some people? And might there be a more effective treatment for this kind of suffering than the usual antidepressants, whose target is serotonin?

Afterlife Defying Death

Research of Near Death Experiences May Improve Resuscitation

Questions and Answers about Moment of Death: AWARE Project Uses Technology to Investigate “Out-of-Body Experiences”
Today &#8211 (September 28, 2009)

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

According to the Today show’s Q&A, the Awareness During Resuscitation study — AWARE for short — is investigating “what happens to the human mind and consciousness during clinical death and the relationship between consciousness and the brain.” The hope is improved research will inform better resuscitation practices — though I suspect it’s also attempting to lasso the afterlife moon. As the video shows, part of the experiment involves putting a sign on a shelf high above hospital beds with the idea that astral travelers will see it and be able to relay messages once resuscitated. Shout backs, anyone?

Though I find this less than rigorous, the research protocol has been peer reviewed, as will be the results, and the study also uses technology to measure the flow of blood to the brain for a more technical analysis of what the heck is going on during and after death.

…And I suppose it would be pretty cool if someone, floating above his or her dead body and the heads of the doctors and nurses as is often reported, reads and relays the message of the sign. But assuming this study will not prove the existence of an afterlife, I’m just as jazzed to know we have such amazing, imaginative, immersive-experience minds.

We at DeathRef will keep our eyes skinned on this one.

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!