Make Your Corpse Behave
I once critiqued a novel where the villain forced the heroine to participate in a tea party with a week-old corpse. Can you say “ewww?”
Or if you know your corpses, you’re saying “uh-uh, no way.” And you’d be correct. Unless the body had been on ice and the tea party occurred in an Antarctica, gases from the decomposing body (and the resulting OMG-what-is-that-smell) would have made that little social gathering impossible.
After I created a stink—nothing nearly as putrid as the tea party corpse—my friend corrected her error, but too many mystery authors treat the dead body without adequately considering the decaying process. We don’t accurately depict the condition of our corpse based on time since demise and environmental conditions.
I didn’t start out to be an expert in rigor mortises (and I use the term expert very loosely). I wrote a novel about a woman with hyperosmia—a hypersensitive sense of smell. My heroine kept scrubbing the floor trying to get rid of an offensive odor. The smell, naturally, was a dead body in the basement (after all, I am a mystery writer). Only I needed to understand exactly how and when the odor would emanate. How long must a poor unfortunate soul be deceased before antiperspirants ceases to work? So I did some research and consulted some “real” experts.
Decomposition begins at the moment of death. When the heart stops, blood no longer flows through the body. Most of the corpse will turn a deadly white (pun intended), but gravity causes the blood to pool in the body parts closest to the ground. The resulting bluish-purple discoloration is called livor mortis. As authors, this makes for some vivid descriptions. Also, the pooling of blood will enable your heroine to know when a body has been moved. If your corpse is lying face-down and your arm-chair detective notices visible pooled blood on the victim’s back—the body “ain’t” where it fell.
So back to our corpse… In three to six hours, the muscles become rigid (a.k.a. rigor mortis). Rigor affects the jaw first, then face and neck, the trunk and arms, and finally the legs and feet. If your detective isn’t squeamish, touching the corpse (“ewww” again) to determine what parts are rigid can help determine the time of death—even before the coroner arrives. Rigor peaks at twelve hours, and dissipates after 48 hours. Hint: your stiff is no longer stiff after two days.
Within 24-72 hours things get gory. The internal organs begin to decompose as the body’s remaining oxygen is gobbled up by aerobic microbes, already present in the gizzards before death. Enzymes in the pancreas cause the body’s organs to digest themselves. The cells in the body literally burst open. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, YUCK. But it gets worse. Microbes tag-team these enzymes, turning the body green from the belly onwards.
Only it gets worse. Within three to five days, gases (methane, hydrogen sulfide, mercaptans) produced by the decaying process accumulate and cause the abdomen to distend. The cadaver will have an overall bloated appearance and smell bloody awful. The skin blisters, the tongue protrudes, and pressure forces gases and frothy liquids out the nose, mouth and, eh…other orifices. This same buildup of pressure may also cause the body to rupture. And I won’t even mention the flies and maggots the corpse attracts. Let’s just say the folks producing those zombie shows got a lot of things right.
Within a month, nails and teeth fall out. NOTE: Contrary to popular belief, skin and hair do NOT continue to grow after death. The skin shrinks, making nails and hair “appear” longer. The body starts to dry out. If the cadaver is unprotected, those insects I’m not mentioning will have chowed down on any remaining flesh; moths and bacteria consume the hair. If the body is not protected from the elements, within a year only bones remain. However, those same bones can last a hundred years if the soil is not highly acidic or too warm.
Keep in mind, many conditions affect the rate of deterioration. Corpses last longer in cold, dry environments and zombify really fast in tropical climates. Believe it or not, a body lasts longer in the water than in open air and even longer in the ground. The embalming process can slow the decay, but even the best undertaker is no match for Mother Nature’s recycling machine. Deterioration continues, even in the coffin. Within a year, bones and teeth are usually all that remain
Some corpses, however take an interesting turn. If the body comes into contact with cold earth or water, adipocere can develop. This waxy material is formed when bacteria breaks down tissue and naturally preserves the inner organs. For the writer, adipocere can create an interesting plot twist since the victim will have died much earlier than it seems.
Because so many factors affect rigor mortis, forensic pathologists rely on other methods to determine time of death (TOD), one being body temperature. When the heart stops beating, the body temperature falls about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit each hour until it reaches room temperature. Of course this method is only viable if the corpse is discovered within seventeen hours of death.
Another way to determine TOD is via the corpse’s belly contents. The degree of digestion since the last meal enables examiners to gauge how long the person lived after eating at Taco Bell (which may also be the cause of death). Yet another method to assess TOD is via insect activity, but I’ve already said I won’t talk about that.
I have treated a very serious subject with a large degree of irreverence, but that’s my defense mechanism in high gear. While the idea of the real corpse is disgusting, it’s as important as the real killer. Treat your corpse accurately. As writers, we have an obligation to “get it right.”
In my newest release, Framing Noverta, I took the simple way out. I had my corpse discovered a mere two hours after death—no gory parts, no repulsive odor. I did get the exit wound right though.
Weary of D.C. murder and mayhem, Cal Henderson trades in his city badge for a sheriff’s star. Regrettably, his Tennessee hometown proves anything but peaceful—a woman is shot dead in her bed and the only viable suspects are his best friend, Noverta, and the love of Cal’s life—the current Mrs. Grace Gardner.
Noverta escapes from jail, making Cal question his efforts to prove the man’s innocence. As more evidence points toward Grace’s involvement in the murder, Cal’s core principles crumble. Can he do the right if his action destroys everything worth protecting?