Effect Measure

The smell of death

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.


  1. #1 Melanie
    February 23, 2007

    Patricia Cornwell wrote a mystery novel about the place. Cornwell spent some time in the ME’s office in Henrico County, Virginia, and knows her way around a crime scene.

  2. #2 Tony P
    February 23, 2007

    I always wondered about the fear of dead bodies being a vector for diseases. Maybe it goes back to religious bovine effluvia, maybe it’s just a mass error in thinking. I’d say it’s probably a combination of the two.

    Of course this comes from someone who in freshman biology was treated to the viewing of an autopsy, all up close and personal. While classmates were puking and passing out, I was crowding in for a better view.

    The only reason I chose I.T. over medicine is because when hardware dies, you can usually resurrect it.

  3. #3 Lea
    February 23, 2007

    Danish: brnde

  4. #4 Algerine
    February 23, 2007

    I’ll say it again: dead bodies don’t cause disease outbreaks.

    Unless they’re zombies.

  5. #5 v
    February 23, 2007

    Dead bodies can’t destroy ground water or water bodies? Dead bodies don’t attract insects or flies? Dead bodies don’t attract rats or wolves etc? There have been no deaths associated with cadavers? Never, ever? Birds don’t feed on cadavers? Black death?

  6. #6 v
    February 24, 2007

    A decomposing body is highly noxious and full of pathenogens. On body farms invesigators all are fully gowned and all have

  7. #7 v
    February 24, 2007

    Sorry, posted before I had finished.

    Change of thought patterns here.

    Revere, a question for you.

    What personal experience have you had with cadavers or large numbers of cadavers?

  8. #8 Darin
    February 24, 2007

    As humans, we really haven’t evolved that much imo. We go outside, our sinuses react, we get a runny nose. We MUST have got a cold from the cold. We see dead bodies, we feel sick emotionally and physically, we must be getting sick from the dead bodies. Some day, we’ll look back at the 21st (hopefully I’ll look back from my computerized personality or some such), and say ‘Gee, we weren’t much smarter than 500 years ago.’

  9. #9 K
    February 24, 2007

    In our days as hunter gatherers bodies might become dead from accidents, murder, natural disasters, or disease. Since disease is a regular occurance it would be fairly likely that a dead body was a human who died of disease. Also long dead bodies of other animals that have died are probably not a good bet for humans to eat. Thus a revulsion to the smell of rotting corpses would be evolutionarily useful, just as the revulsion to our own feces is. Things smell good or bad not because of some inherent quality in the smell but because of our brain programs that are laid down through the eons via evolution. While we can overcome such brain programs with education (for instance to learn that not all snakes are poisonous) it takes a bit of work. Thanks Revere for the education about dead corpses from natural disasters not causing disease. I presume you would not say the same if the dead were dead from the plague or H5N1.

  10. #10 v
    February 24, 2007

    K – good points.

    You can definitely get Ebola from an Ebola corpse.

    Given time to research the topic, I am sure that I could find a plethora of diseases that could be caught from the close handling of corpses. Dysentery, vomiting, diarrhea for a start.

    The same can be said of eating animals that are too decomposed (you can get very sick and die, very quickly).

  11. #11 Greg
    February 24, 2007

    Hunter-gatherers don’t experience disease as a regular occurance. Disease requires contact, such as overcrowding in cities and camps, or carriers, such as rats, smallpox-infected blankets and gangs of pillagers.

    Deceased animals, including humans, exposed to the world never become long dead bodies, except sometimes in ice- and sand-deserts. They are quickly scavenged. European navies had to tar the body parts of dismembered mutineers, so that they would last, hanging amongst the shrouds, long enough to discourage copy-cat malcontents.

    I first started this comment with “I have never heard of urgent burial to prevent disease outbreak”. OK, not true. Nonetheless, true. I was replying to the book you linked, Revere; in particular, to the phrases “throughout history” and “mass graves”. PAHO has an unusually short conception of “throughout history”.

    Throughout history, mass graves were an expedient, to get rid of a lot of dead bodies quickly and cheaply. Also, often to make sure they stayed dead. Indeed, enemies and terrorists were often stabbed again as a precaution and left on the battlefield or the cross, as a sign of disrespect or an object lesson.

    Even today, mass graves are an expedient, resorted to for speed and economy. Of course, authorities will say “disease” and “respect”. However, they really want everybody to get back to work and to war. In Latin America, someplaces, they still want to hide the evidence before nosy human-rights investigators come stirring up needless trouble.

    Of course, it remains true, in hot climates, if you intend to respect a body, and your nose, you must get it buried or refrigerated pretty quickly.

  12. #12 crfullmoon
    February 24, 2007

    Tony P: “The only reason I chose I.T. over medicine is because when hardware dies, you can usually resurrect it. ”

    So, University of Tennessee, aren’t cadaver dogs a more sustainable, good for the environment, resource, than robots?

    Could they also let dogs in training check out those smells?
    (“Fluorinated” -eek; I’m “fluorinated”…)

  13. #13 SaddleTramp
    February 24, 2007


    Some time ago, I looked into donating my body to UT for use in its forensic “bone yard” where the corpses are used to simulate crime scenes to train CSIs and police officers.

    I found that if you are a Tennessee resident, no problem, but if you are from out of state, there are serious costs involved in prepping and transporting the body, etc.

    Is this true of the Smell Project, too? Im still interested.

  14. #14 revere
    February 24, 2007

    v, etc.: Note that I was careful to say bodies dead from trauma, but I could have included virtually any non infectious disease (heart, disease, cancer, etc.). Even for infectious diseases, the parasite often is no longer present after a short period because it depends on the living host for its existence. Dead human bodies aren’t different in most respects from dead leaf bodies, dead tree bodies, dead vegetable bodies, etc. They are complex molecules with lots of energy stored in them and other organisms make their living by extracting energy by tearing them down to constituent parts (“decomposition”). Bad smells are not a necessary warning of danger (consider cheese). Some bodies may be dangerous for a short time (probably not plague, which requires several intermediate hosts). A live person with H5N1 is much more dangerous than a dead one since the former is breathing and shedding virus. The virus is no longer replicating in a dead person. But the main point, that just masses of dead people are not dangerous, holds true. If they are dead for a specific reason — e.g., poison gas and the poison is still around — that may be a factor, but it is a very special factor.

    My experience of dead bodies and cadavers is the usual for a doctor. I spent 8 months hovered over one, have seen lots of autopsies of freshly dead bodies (and the surgery of living ones, who don’t look much different than the freshly dead ones). I don’t have experience of mass graves but I hve colleagues who do and there is a solid medical literature on it (again, visit the PAHO link I provided as the last link in the post).

    ST: No idea about the regs on dead body transport to Tennessee. They can probably tell you.

  15. #15 revere
    February 24, 2007

    v.: No, decomponsing bodies are not full of pathogens. A pathogen doesn’t arise by spontaneous generation. If the pathogen wasn’t in the live body it won’t be in the dead one. That’s the essential point. You can’t get cholera from dead bodies in the US because we don’t have cholera in this country.

  16. #16 K
    February 24, 2007

    Greg, perhaps prompt disposal of diseased corpses is part of the reason that hunter-gatherers stayed more healthy along with keeping feces out of the camp and the factors you mention.

    Revere – as a kid I thought all cheese smelled like vomit. Perhaps people who learned to eat it early don’t make that connection. Certain evolution would be wise to make vomit unappealing to us. Dogs of course will eat it – they seem to have stomachs of steel however.

    At any rate, even if we can’t discern it I think that it is highly likely that there is a reason based in our evolution for almost all smells and tastes that appeal to us, and almost all smells and tastes that disgust us.

  17. #17 Mike the Mad Biologist
    February 24, 2007

    I’ve always wondered if this myth is some kind of cultural atavism related to the Black Death (and similar outbreaks in other parts of the world).

  18. #18 crfullmoon
    February 24, 2007

    It is upsetting enough that people die; humans do not want to have to witness the decomposition process, too.

    Mike, perhaps if one person did die of a communicable disease, or an insect vector one, ect, as any more people who were also infected got sick and died, cause might by easier to explain as being the fault of the first corpse, which they could see at least, rather than the disease agent?
    Weren’t people thinking about keeping ghosts from being angry, by burial and funeral rites, to avoid the survivors being punished by further deaths, way back in the Iliad or so?

  19. #19 Lea
    February 24, 2007

    This project is borderline creepy yet intriguing enough to capture the attention. The top header did say Live Science Strange News.

    The project is supposedly designed to help train cadaver dogs, develop robotic dogs, and in the event of a crime provide clearer evidence as they’d get to the body faster.

    Who funded this?

    revere: may be a tad bit off subject but while we’re discussing dead bodies: a girlfriend told me recently that half the amount of embalming fluid is now used on dead bodies because of all the preservatives in our foods.

  20. #20 revere
    February 24, 2007

    Lea: Haven’t heard that and I consider it highly unlikely. Most organisms that are involved probably wouldn’t be affected except by much higher concentrations of the usual preservatives (e.g., benzoates) than could ever be attained in a living body.

  21. #21 Greg
    February 24, 2007

    In mediaeval Europe, if you weren’t buried in Hallowed Ground with proper Rites, you didn’t go to Heaven. Kept people from presenting bad attitudes toward the Church and Her Servants. The Inquisition from time to time would dig up a corpse, torture a confession out of it, and, after collecting the appropriate fees and fines from heritors, release the remains for disposal, outside the Church.

    We are all saying “dead body” but we’re thinking “urban squallor”, in the proven (by the body) presence of communicable (likely already communicated) disease. And most of us overly fearful of death.

    Remember the Pump Handle.

  22. #22 Tink
    February 26, 2007

    I will use Febreeze or Resolve. They both kill odors on contact.

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