If you are attracted to leaving your body to science but still want to be buried au naturel, now you can have it both ways. Just bequeath yourself to the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. There you can quietly decompose on their peaceful three acre facility, where perforated pipes from you buried corpse bring up the gasses produced as microorganisms busily break down your complex molecules to smaller ones. The idea is to discover what dead bodies smell like:
It’s not a pleasant smell,” Vass said. “You never get used to it.”
It takes about 17 days for odors to first be detectable on the surface, in a case where a corpse is buried about 18 inches deep. “The average clandestine grave is about 2 to 2-1/2 feet deep, according to statistics from the FBI,” [forensic anthropologist Arpad] Vass explained.
In the ongoing project, scientists have found odors detectable from corpses even after 17 years. “Even bone has odor,” Vass said. Moreover, “you can even tell apart different species of animals based on the odor.”
Vass and his colleagues have narrowed down 30 simple molecules specific to buried human bodies that are consistently detectable across a variety of soil types and depths.
“The most interesting ones are the fluorinated ones,” Vass told LiveScience. “We think these come from a lifetime of drinking fluorinated water and incorporating fluorine into our tissues and bones. As the body breaks down, it releases these compounds, which are very easily detected, since they are very light and come up through the soil easily.” (LiveScience)
So far Vass and colleagues have identified about 30 compounds that seem fairly specific to rotting human corpses. One goal is to design a portable device, an electronic cadaver dog, to be used to find concealed bodies. In forensic pathology, the more quickly a body is found the more likely there will be usable information.
More relevant here, the smell of thousands of rotting bodies after a mass casualty like an earthquake is often taken to represent a health hazard. It isn’t anything of the kind. Bodies that die in traumatic events are not health risks, although the smells are aesthetically unpleasing.
That won’t prevent news media from reporting that authorities are urgently trying to bury the dead after some calamity to prevent a disease out break.
Dead bodies don’t cause disease out breaks. I’ll say it again: dead bodies don’t cause disease outbreaks.