Grave wax and soap people: Germany’s not so rotten corpses

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.”

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

tiffany_88's picture
tiffany_88 says:

Why the people do that with the bodies? I'm scared the pictures is horrified. When I die, don't be want to see in this form.

posted on Thu, 03/13/2008 - 9:24am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

For the most part, I don't think people mean to do that with bodies (unless you're referring to exhuming them and photographing them). The process is a natural one, and whether or not it happens depends on the conditions of the soil one is buried in.

I think I might want to be seen like that. No, I take it back--I don't want to be seen as a saponified body, but I do want my saponified body broken up in to chunks and sold in natural food stores as organic soap. I'd be great soap.

posted on Sun, 03/16/2008 - 6:23pm
Eva Brown's picture
Eva Brown says:

I know it seems gross but it is natural, and lets face it, we will all be there some day. We do not know what will become of our mortal remains. It will be OK.

posted on Thu, 06/26/2008 - 10:15pm
kwlundy's picture
kwlundy says:

something unseemly about combining Germans with making soap from bodies somehow

posted on Fri, 10/24/2008 - 3:48pm
Chicken man's picture
Chicken man says:

how dose it do tha?

posted on Sat, 10/25/2008 - 4:51pm
DO's picture
DO says:

The Germans used the ashes from the concentration camps to make soap it was reported.

posted on Fri, 10/31/2008 - 12:31pm
Karen's picture
Karen says:

Link is broken. More adipocere, please!

I've visited the soap lady before. She doesn't usually look so horrified (the angle I guess). She's been xray'd and they found pins and things.

posted on Mon, 10/27/2008 - 3:54pm
EWatson02's picture
EWatson02 says:

It's funny, when I was reading the article I at first thought "so the bodies aren't rotting...what's the problem?" But then I read about the practice of recycling graves, and all became clear. This sort of thing simply wouldn't be an issue here in the States. In fact, the bigger problem would be recycling graves! Many of us here want to believe that our last resting place really will be our last, and that that rest really will be undisturbed. Interesting how cultural perspectives even extend to human decomposition.

Also, the Mutter Museum has been a place I've been wanting to visit for a long time. Road trip!

posted on Mon, 10/27/2008 - 5:50pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The mutter museum is absolutely amazing, especially for someone who is interested in forensic anthropology or birth defect like things. The jars of dead babies tend to freak people out a bit though. I find them quite fascinating.

posted on Wed, 11/30/2011 - 11:27pm
EWatson02's picture
EWatson02 says:

Oh, forgot to add that Karen is right: the link to "all things adipocere" is broken.

posted on Mon, 10/27/2008 - 5:51pm
D2-D2's picture
D2-D2 says:

Bodies used for making soap! That's insane. They must have made a lot of soap.

posted on Sun, 11/02/2008 - 1:10pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

More and more, I'm convinced that cremation is the ONLY way to go! I I hope I'm 100% dead when they strike the match! I've been told that the cremation process is hurried along because the bones that did not become ashes are ground up to powder form! It's OK if my family want to keep my ashes on the fireplace mantle( just as long as they keep their tobacco butts OUT of my urn!) Otherwise, I'll 'haunt' them!

posted on Sat, 11/26/2011 - 3:53pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

its called "adopcere" as fat breaks down in the human body as it decomposes it leaks out in a form of a waxy substance commly know as grave wax...it is not actualy soap

posted on Fri, 03/02/2012 - 7:30am
Anne Onimis's picture
Anne Onimis says:

This is so fascinating. Germany could be making a fortune selling people soap to other countries... Make sure you check where your soap is make, people XD

posted on Thu, 03/15/2012 - 10:16am

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