Causing a Stink

I’ve dealt with a lot of human remains in my career, but they have mostly been old… often very old, and largely skeletal. Studying anatomy with medical students along with old bones and mummies at University I have been exposed to some of the science of the recently deceased, but since I started working at Foxfield in August I’ve learned a lot more about the processes that occur after we depart this mortal coil.

Here at Foxfield an important priority is to make sure we can answer your questions using the most up-to-date research possible, as our science lead that’s part of my responsibility here, and one I take very seriously.

One of the questions we get asked – and one that many people struggle to find the words to ask – is ‘what about the smell’? So if you’ve ever wanted to know but didn’t want to ask here goes:

Decomposition is a complex process, exactly what happens and how fast is affected by a wide number of things, for instance heat, soil type and moisture can dramatically alter the rate of at which a buried body returns to the earth.

A huge range of volatile organic compounds (over 400), are produced during the process of decomposition. Organic compounds are chemicals are present in all living things. Those that can easily become vapors or gases are known as volatile compounds, and contain many different chemical elements including things like chlorine and sulfur.  Different combinations of these make up different smells and will react differently with their environment.

Since decay starts almost immediately after death the truth is that when we pass away we will all smell to some degree or other – even embalming or freezing only slows the process down.  But this very process is what gives the compounds locked up in our bodies back to the earth so that they can be used to support new life.

Many people worry that if they are buried without embalming, perhaps with a shroud rather than a casket or without a giant concrete grave liner then their burial site will smell. However, research undertaken to aid in forensic investigations and by environmental scientists working to ensure clean air and water have shown that soil – that often disregarded and literally trodden underfoot substance – is an excellent filter.

In fact, a smell ‘barrier’ of 18 inches of soil is more than enough to stop any nasty scents from escaping while you make your deposit into the earth bank. Humans have a notoriously poor sense of smell in comparison with other mammals. For instance, that humble companion dog that many share their lives with have a sense of smell that is about 40 times greater than ours – we have just six million odor receptors in our noses while they have a highly impressive 300 million.

That brings us to another question I’ll be blogging about another time … won’t animals dig me up?