Stories tagged bodies


It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?
It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?Courtesy Jill Greenseth
Here at Science Buzz, we strive to keep all y’all Buzzketeers surfing on crest of the new wave, sliding down the cutting edge of the razor that is the future, and, um, up to date on new things. With this in mind, I thought it was important to inform you of the latest, greatest craze in dealing with your useless dead body: alkaline hydrolysis. For everyone already in the know, please just put your heads down on your desks, and wait quietly while the rest of us catch up. Thank you.

Alkaline hydrolysis is, if possible, even cooler than it sounds, and as simple as ABC, but I’ll walk you through it from the beginning. So… You’re born (embarrassing!), you go to prom (best night ever), you live your life (boooring), and then you die. And then what? You’ve got this dead body on your hands, and it’s too big for the garbage disposal in the sink, and Goodwill won’t accept them any more, so what are you supposed to do? Bury it? Yeah, if you’re some kind of chump. Oh, hey, why not bury your body? People have only been doing that for, like, thousands of years. Please. You wouldn’t wear sunglasses from a thousand years ago—everybody would know how lame you are—so why bury your lousy body like they would then? What else…a Viking funeral, maybe? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there some things are just too cool, and most people can’t pull them off. For your average dead Joe, trying to go out with a Viking funeral would be like…like wearing an Armani suit to your fish gutting job—not the right fit.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, technology has come through and offered a fancy new way to go: dissolving your body in lye. One minute you’re a sad, dead old man lying on a slab, and a few hours later you’re a “brown, syrupy residue” ready to be dumped out on the street. This is alkaline hydrolysis.

Basically what happens is this: you’re put into a large tank filled with a lye solution, heated up to 300 degrees, and submitted to about 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (about the same as the pressure in a bicycle tire). It’s like being in a pressure cooker, kind of, but a little more intense. What’s left when you’re done cooking are a few little crunchy solids, and a “coffee-colored liquid with the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell,” which can be safely poured down the drain (or toilet, depending on your preference). Or maybe you could have it misted over the guests at your funeral service. Anything’s possible!Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!
Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!Courtesy hilderbrant

Alkaline hydrolysis is currently only legal—in medical facilities—in Minnesota (yes!) and New Hampshire, but some folks are pushing to have it become a legal process at funeral homes around the country. It’s environmentally cleaner, they argue, than cremation, and doesn’t require the physical space of burial. It would hardly be the grossest thing dumped down our drains, too, as blood and spillover embalming fluid are routinely flushed away at funeral homes. Opponents point out that it’s kind of yucky. Also, some believe that the process is an “undignified” way to treat a human body. To this I say, “True, sir, true, but you know what else is undignified? Belly shirts. And we’ve gotten used to those. Some people even like them.”

So, yeah, get used to it folks. The future is now, and it’s brown, syrupy, and smells like a litter box.


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.”


Delve into BODY WORLDS through the lenses of religion, art, and medicine. Experience the human drama of BODY WORLDS. The Science Museum of Minnesota presents three community forums on topics germane to this internationally acclaimed exhibition. Moderated by Science Museum of Minnesota President, Dr. Eric Jolly.

  • Where: 3D Cinema Auditorium at the Science Museum of Minnesota
  • Cost: $30 per forum (non-members); $22 per forum (members). Includes entry to BODY WORLDS and museum exhibitions. Admission the the forums ONLY is available for $13 (non-members), $12 (members). (Stories Behind Organ and Body Donation is FREE!)
  • REGISTER NOW: (651) 221-9444 or (800) 221-9444

Religious Views of the Human Body and Soul In and After Death
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.

Moderated by Science Museum of Minnesota President, Dr. Eric Jolly

As science advances, we know more about our bodies and how they work, but there are still questions for most of us about what happens in death and how to treat the dead. Religions offer their own perspectives on whether there is a soul and how it is related to the physical body. Is the soul part of the body or separate; can it be diminished when we remove a limb or an organ? Religious leaders and theologians will help us contemplate and compare the variety of religious belief systems about the body and soul and how BODY WORLDS fit into these schema.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel; Paul Wojda, Ph.D., University of St. Thomas; Brother Owais Bayunus, Islamic Center of Minnesota

Stories Behind Organ and Body Donation
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.

When you get your driver's license, you have the option to become an organ donor. What's the difference between organ or tissue donation and whole body donation? What really happens to bodies donated to science? The BODY WORLDS exhibition raises the community's awareness about body donation. Organ donors, donors' families, and recipients will share their experiences of receiving donated organs and the personal meaning of donating one's body for science. Guests will be required to reserve a complimentary ticket in advance.

David Lee, Director, Anatomy Bequest Program, Medical School, University of Minnesota; Dr. Frazier Eales, Life Source

Human Body in Art: In the Anatomy Theater/Wrestling with the Real
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.

Moderated by Science Museum of Minnesota President, Dr. Eric Jolly

Much of the consternation about the touring exhibition, BODY WORLDS, hinges on the "realness" of the bodies on display. This talk will focus on the use of the actual body by artists since the 1940s, highlighting various artistic strategies and the possible cultural meanings of such use of the body. We will examine both the artists' intentions and the responses of the viewing public who in the end are forced to wrestle with the often disturbing reality of the re-contextualized human body.

Michael Gaudio, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Minnesota; Diane Mullin, Ph.D., Associate Curator, Weisman Art Museum