The fascinating process of human decomposition


Last month I visited a body farm in Texas.
So these are places where researchers take recently deceased human bodies and they essentially
just leave them out to decompose. So this research, mainly it’s helpful when law enforcement
come across a body under mysterious circumstances, maybe a murder, and they want to know how
long has it been out here. The bodies are scattered all over the field. They have about
50 out and most of them are under these metal cages that prevent the vultures from getting
in. I kept asking him to lift up the cages for me to get better photos. So what happens
right after you die is all the fluids that are inside your cells when you’re alive leak
out and bacteria start feeding immediately. There converting the liquids and solids inside
you into gasses that they emit, and this causes the second stage, which is bloat. You also
have something called marbling during this stage because one of the gases, sulfur, binds
to the hemoglobin molecules in your blood and changes the color of them to an orange
or yellow. And at the same time, flies come. They come almost immediately when the body
is placed, and they lay eggs. And they especially lay them in any orifices, so your head will
get a lot of maggots on it — the eye sockets and mouth and nose, and they’ll eat away at
that first. They’re absolutely just crawling all over the body, like, getting up really
close to it and taking photos was the most intense thing I did there. Then after a few
days of that, the body moves to the third stage, which is called purge. And that’s ultimately
the bloating is relieved as a lot of the gas and fluids leak out and you see this dark
fluid pooling around the body. And the interesting thing is that fluid is really nutrient rich,
but it’s so rich in nitrogen that it kills off the plants initially. But a year later,
it’ll become especially fertile. So here this is the next stage. A lot of the changes happen
really rapidly at first, and then it slows down a lot. There’s certainly still bacteria
here, but if you were to graph all the nutrients, it’s a very sharp decline. If the body is
in the sun, especially in Texas, the heat is so strong that a lot of bacteria and insects
can’t actually survive. And so instead of continuing to decompose the body, it will
really gradually mummify — it’ll just dry up. But if the body is in the shade, then
the bacteria and insects can continue to feed on it and they’ll essentially eat it down
to a skeleton. With the vultures, the process is completely different because a flock of
them will just swarm a body immediately if it’s left uncaged, and they can eat pretty
much all of the flesh off within a few hours. One of the things that really fascinated me
is the way that the bones are frayed. And that’s from their beaks ripping at it voraciously.
And that looks like leather or clothing, but it’s skin. Typically they’re left out to decompose
for 6 to 12 months. So when the bodies come in, they’ll boil them and they put detergent
on them and that strips away most of the remaining flesh. And then volunteer undergraduate interns
will clean every single bone with a toothbrush. The smell was actually the strongest inside
that lab. It smells like rotting meat, which is essentially what it is — you know, just
organic substances that have gone bad. And then after they get clean they get laid back
out, they get labeled, and then they get sent to the lab closer into town where they get
boxed up. And so this basically serves as a contemporary skeleton collection, which
there aren’t that many of, as it turns out. We really seldom see bodies anymore in our
modern culture. Most people die in a hospital. They get directly sent to a funeral home.
That funeral home injects them with formaldehyde and puts makeup all over them, so they don’t
look like a dead body. But the truth is that ultimately, whether we see it or not, this
happens. Unless you get cremated, it’s going to happen to you. I mean, that’s what ecosystems
evolved to do — is harvest nutrients to create new life.

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