Stories tagged dead

Jan
13
2008

An old German graveyard: Probably swimming with grave wax.
An old German graveyard: Probably swimming with grave wax.Courtesy whimsical truth
Check this out: Germany’s dead bodies have stopped rotting, and are instead turning into gross, waxy corpses. Not all the bodies, I suppose, but enough that it’s becoming a serious problem.

Now this alone would be pretty unsettling anywhere, because who wants waxy corpses just stacking up everywhere, but it’s even more of an issue with the Germans, because German cemeteries often have the practice of “recycling” cemetery plots every 15 to 20 years. In the past 15 to 20 years was plenty of time for a body to more or less completely decompose. Unfortunately, that formula doesn’t quite work for the graveyards of today.

For a body to decompose quickly and fully, it needs oxygen to be present, and a little moisture (but not too much). The problem in Germany is that when many communities created their newest cemeteries, they purchased cheap soil with high clay content from local farmers. This clay-heavy soil drains very poorly, keeps the bodies cool, and prevents oxygen from reaching them. And what happens then? Instead of rotting into good old-fashioned grave dirt, the bodies turn into a “gray-white, paste-like, soft mass.” Oh, man, yuckers! But that’s not all – given time, the pasty bodies eventually solidify into a hard, durable, wax-like substance that “when knocked with a spade… sound hollow.”

As fun as it must be for them to go around whacking dead bodies with spades, Germany obviously can’t allow this problem to continue (although I noticed that the most serious potential problem, zombie uprising, was entirely ignored by the article, I expect this factors heavily into the German government’s concern over the situation). The best solution would be to undertake some serious soil reconditioning, and recreate graveyards as decomposition friendly areas. There happens to be a Swiss company that offers just such a service, replacing the poor quality earth with a “custom mixture of topsoil, woodchips and gravel.” This is awfully expensive however, and pretty messy, what with the digging up whole graveyards thing, and so other solutions are being sought simultaneously. Cement burial chambers, for instance, are becoming a hot selling item with Germany’s wealthier dead. These pre-fab sarcophagi are meant to allow for the sort of decomposition prohibited by the poor soil, but studies have shown that they generally don’t work out as intended. The chambers are made to be watertight, and when the “contents” are later examined, researchers have found that not even the flower arrangements rot inside them. What ends up happening is that the bodies just dry out and “take on the leathery consistency of mummies.” As one researcher describes it, “The soft tissue of the corpses was partially still very recognizable, although its volume was significantly reduced.”

The Swiss have offered yet another solution as well – a fungal extract called “Rapid Rot” designed to accelerate decomposition. While Rapid Rot has obvious potential for practical jokes, cemetery officials remain skeptical, preferring to wait a few years to see if the product really works.

What about all that? Did I already write “yuckers”? Oh, I did? And it’s not a real word? Fair enough – then what about all this: I got bored writing that last paragraph and looked up “grave wax.” Apparently grave wax, or “adipocere,” is made up of insoluble fatty acids left over from our fatty dead bodies. These fats have saponified, which is to say, turned to soap! Awesome! The German bodies are essentially huge, disgusting, person-shaped bars of death soap! That would give you a clean feeling like nothing else.

There’s apparently a museum in Pennsylvania with the adipocere body of an extremely obese woman, called “The Soap Lady,” who, let’s see… yes! I found a picture of her! You’re probably already looking at her. Oh, man.

The Soap Lady: Looking horrified, horrifying.
The Soap Lady: Looking horrified, horrifying.Courtesy Mendrakis
If you’re up for it after ol’ Soap Lady, here’s a site completely dedicated to all things adipocere. I honestly don’t want to, but I’m going to look at the site first, to see if it’s safe. Ok…

Well, the site uses phrases like “cheese-like substance,” “pungent odor similar to ammonia,” and “rank and cheesy, or sweet smelling” (I like to think my adipocere would be sweet smelling). There are kind of a lot of references to cheese, unfortunately. And the photos are… checking… eh, pretty gross. Very Dawn of the Dead, actually.

Have at it, Buzzketeers, and remember that, when you die, there’s a chance that your body could be “heated to a plastic-like state, melted, clarified, or burned,” and that your consistency may vary, “from being gooey as with a mushy bar of soap, to semi-soft like with a young cheddar cheese, to hard and grainy, as with candle wax.”

Mar
18
2005

More than 100 dead jumbo squid have washed up on the California coast since Sunday. Scientists haven't yet figured out why.

Humboldt squid normally live and hunt 3000 feet below the ocean's surface. This year, they seem to be swimming north from Mexico, following food sources that are bringing them closer to the surface and the shore.

Some scientists think that overfishing in Mexico may be reducing the amount of food available for the squid, forcing them to migrate into Southern California. (The squid may be confused by sand churned up by tides.)

Other scientists are studying the contents of the squids' stomachs, trying to determine if they're being poisoned somehow. (Large numbers of dead squid washed up on the shore in the same area in January, about a week after an oil spill from an undetermined source coated seabirds off the California coast.)

Research continues...