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10 Creepy Facts About Cadavers

by Joe Duncan
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Dead human bodies are something that strike us all to the very core the moment we see them. They creep us out and make us wonder and stare in awe at the futility, shortness, and delicacy of life. They are the zombies in our horror movies. They are the inevitable terminal destination of life, and someday, we know we will become one, too.

Some, however, would argue that such gut reactions are just a natural aversion to be overcome. Plenty of people work with corpses day in and day out, such as nurses, mortuary assistants, and people of science . . . and that’s where cadavers come in. Science needs bodies to study so that we can progressively learn more about anatomy. It’s never been an easy job, staring mortality in the face and cutting it open in the name of knowledge and its fruitful pursuits.

Thanks to these selfless people throughout history, we have most of our current medical knowledge to aid us as we go through our lives and maintain our health. Some even find a sense of peace among bodies. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy said, “The dead won’t bother you, it’s the living you have to worry about.”[1] Here are ten creepy and interesting facts about human cadavers.

10 Friends And Family

Even the strongest of us, and those among us most used to seeing and being around dead bodies, can still be disturbed by seeing their friends and family dead; it’s enough to shake any of us to our very core, and understandably so. But unfortunately, in the past, archaic laws prevented very much necessary medical study of bodies. Needless to say, cadavers to dissect were difficult to come by, so some people, such as William Harvey, the person who first described blood circulation, dissected his father and sister in the name of science.[2]

In the early days of anatomical research, scientists would sneak the corpses of friends and family members into their places of work to conduct their research due to a limited supply of fresh and available bodies. This, means, of course, that the early study of cadavers featured people dissecting someone they knew intimately, cutting up their friends and loved ones in hopes of finding something that could be beneficial to humanity.

9 Body Snatching

No list about cadavers is quite complete without a mention of body snatchers. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, body snatching became prominent, as the only corpses readily available were those of criminals, which left anatomists with a massive shortage and need for cadavers. We all know the basic premise: Body snatchers were like grave robbers, only they would dig up a grave to steal the corpse, rather than the jewels or other tokens of love the body had been buried with.

The above distinction is actually important. Corpses had no legal standing in Britain until 1832, when the Anatomy Act was passed. Before that, a dead body technically didn’t belong to anyone. This meant that so long as the body snatcher didn’t take any of the belongings of the deceased, body snatching was perfectly legal.[3] The act of dissecting a corpse, however, was still very illegal. Body snatching, while a dirty job, was once a perfectly legal profession and a high-paying one for the day, too.

8 Season Of The Dead

Body snatching was once a big, booming business, and like other businesses, it had its ups and downs. There was actually a dissection season, as bodies decompose at vastly different rates depending on the temperature, meaning body-snatchers’ ability to find fresh, viable bodies would vary throughout the year with the weather. The cooler months of October through May proved to be prime time for body snatchers, as the hot summer would speed up the decomposition process, rendering the corpses unusable.[4] And usable bodies were important for science. So, yes, there was at one time a “body snatching season.”

Temperature is actually the primary factor that affects the rate of decomposition. Flies, maggots, bacteria, and other small living creatures all contribute to the rate at which a body decomposes, and the colder the temperature, the slower the decomposition, as fewer of the life-forms that consume dead flesh can survive the harsher conditions.

7 The Flies

Flies are a big part of the decomposition process. Dead flesh is a suitable home to lay their eggs in. Their offspring will eat that flesh, hence why fresh corpses are vital for scientific purposes. Blow flies are typically the first creatures to show up and do the most damage.

Aboveground animals such as flies make all the difference in the world; a body resting on top of the soil will lose 80 percent of its mass in five days to organisms that consume it, while a corpse buried under the ground will take up to 25 days to lose only 60 percent of its mass.[5] It’s important that corpses are protected from the elements in transport and storage so that appropriate science can be conducted with the best materials possible.

6 Maggots

Maggots are actually a scientific tool for establishing time of death.[6] The age of the maggots gives an approximate time of when the flies first arrived and how long the maggots have been present in the body. Maggots are taken from the body, placed in an ethanol solution, and then dated for their age.

The creepiest part about maggots is that the flies generally lay their eggs in open parts of the body, so, maggot presence can indicate if there’s an open wound somewhere present. Maggots hide inside the body. This, of course, also means that when a wound isn’t present, maggots generally are found in the mouth, eyes, nose, and ears. They can come pouring out of someone’s head when a body is moved or transported.

5 Death All Around

Photo credit: Hbreton19

As bodies decompose, more than just maggots assist the process. Besides flies, maggots, cockroaches, ants, dogs, wolves, or whatever other animal that might decide that a freshly dead corpse looks tasty, much of the process of decomposition takes place on the microbial level. Bacteria do a lot of the dirty work.

Nitrogen levels increase in the surrounding soil significantly, which leaves a zone of death all around the body, killing all the vegetation nearby, leaving a dark, black spot in the grass around the corpse.[7] The maggots’ excretions actually have antibiotic properties potent enough to further decimate the surrounding plant life. This level of decomposition is generally referred to as “advanced decay.”

4 Black Putrefaction

Photo credit: Australian Museum

Putrefaction is the stage of death where the body is broken down by decomposition. During this phase, the corpse changes colors, sometimes turning red, sometimes yellow, green, or purple, but ultimately, almost all bodies turn black in the end, the deep, midnight tone of death. In the steps leading up to black putrefaction, the body bloats and expands, swelling with the gasses the bacteria release as they feast.

In the stage called black putrefaction, the body is bloated with gasses like a balloon and then collapses in on itself, letting the gasses escape.[8] At this point, the flesh is like an almost liquid, viscous cream, and the corpse flattens, as the insides have been largely consumed or liquefied.

3 Butyric Fermentation

Photo credit: Australian Museum

After black putrefaction comes butyric fermentation, and at this point, the cadaver has little flesh.[9] Now there is just skin, hair, bone, bacteria, maggots, and dust.

At this point, the body has almost completely flattened like a disc. During this phase, the corpse also begins to smell strongly of cheese . . . Yes, cheese. This transitions into dry decay, and the body soon becomes nearly a solid, with all moisture gone.

2 From Skin To Liquid

Rain has pretty strong and unpredictable effects on the deceased human body. Sometimes, it can slow the process of decomposition, but other times, it can significantly speed it up. Mummified corpses can be rehydrated, negating the preserving effects of the mummification. Rain can also allow all sorts of creatures, from microbes and bacteria to fish or other land animals, to get at the flesh. It can wash away the maggots, but it can also introduce other animals to the inside of the cadaver so that they can devour away.[10]

Water can definitely wreck a human body fast. In some cases, when a body is retrieved from being submerged in water, the saturated flesh peels right off when the corpse is pulled on, exposing the insides of the body, which haven’t been as thoroughly drenched. On land, it’s the other way around; the onset of putrefaction causes the internal organs to liquefy.

1 Corpse Collectives

Decomposition begins only four minutes after death; it’s all downhill from there. The blood stops circulating and begins to settle. Then comes a downward spiral of decay that can last up to several months. Body farms are research facilities where the process of decomposition is studied to see how it happens and to learn about the body, both while living and after death. Not only do these places research decay, but they do it under various conditions, such as placing a cadaver in the water and seeing how it decomposes or leaving it in the field during the hot summer months to see what kind of differences they can find. The knowledge gleaned can ultimately help forensics teams to discover details not immediately known about a deceased individual.

Diet, temperature, moisture, sun conditions, locations, placement, surrounding life, and more can all influence how, and, more importantly, how quickly, a cadaver decomposes.[11] Most of the knowledge provided by these facilities has come from the United States, which has a number of body farms. People who donate their bodies to science to further the vast pool of knowledge we have in our modern world are the ones whose cadavers are shipped off to body farms to be experimented on. It’s like a weird, twisted, experimental sci-fi horror story, only you’re dead when it happens. While body farms tell us a lot about death and our bodies, needless to say, some people are a little wary about living next to them; how would you like to live next to a body farm?

I like dark stuff, the morbid and macabre. I own and operate about 20 Facebook pages, such as Serial Killer Memes, Beautifully Disturbed, Murderworks Horror, and more, which I intend to share these articles on.


Read more about dead bodies and things that have happened to them on 10 Bizarre Things People Did With Corpses and 10 Disturbing Things That Happened To Famous Corpses.

fact checked by Jamie Frater