What Does Death Smell Like?

Decomposing human bodies emit a distinct chemical cocktail that separates them from other decaying animals.

Decomposing human bodies have a unique smell - one that distinguishes them from other rotting animals, according to new research.

Specifically, human corpses emit a unique five-chemical cocktail - comprised of 3-methylbutyl pentanoate, 3-methylbutyl 3-methylbutyrate, 3-methylbutyl 2-methylbutyrate, butyl pentanoate and propyl hexanoate - that separates them from the rest of the animal kingdom.

These five chemicals are part of a group of molecules called esters, which are also responsible for the strong, sharp smells emitted by fruits like pineapples and raspberries, reports The Guardian.

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The human smell of death, in other words, is a little bit fruity.

In collecting gases off of six humans and 26 different animals, researchers identified 452 distinct chemical compounds. Eight of those were specific to humans and pigs, and the five esters were unique to humans.

The esters are produced by degrading muscles, carbohydrates and fat tissues.

Pigs and humans share biological similarities, from growing similar hair to having the same gut flora. For that reason, pigs have been used in most previous decomposition studies. The new research is the first to look at how the two similar animals decompose in the same conditions.

The finding might seem ghoulishly superfluous, but the information has value.

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"The mixture of (these) compounds might be used in the future to more specifically train cadaver dogs," analytical chemist Eva Cuypers told Science.

It may also be useful in assisting party planning for the living: Increasingly elaborate Halloween parties have started to incorporate the smell of death as part of the Halloween experience.

With advancements in the science of the smell of death, then, holiday terror can come in the form of the faint hint of pineapple - as well as a toothless man in an orange jumpsuit accosting you from behind a hay bale.

Method of Treating Corpses, John H. Chambers: July 8, 1890

A decade before the turn of the century, John H. Chambers submitted a patent to systematically remove decomposition fluid from caskets -- which no longer needed to be buried, given his upright, contained design:

"I am aware that it is not new to provide for the removal from the coffin of the fluid in a matter created by the decomposition of the body, and I do not seek to cover such, broadly. Neither do I claim, broadly, the process of embalming, as I am aware that it has long been the practice to embalm bodies after death; but so far as I am aware it never has been proposed to embalm the body and then provide for the exclusion of the air and the removal of the fluid matter from the coffin. This is important. I also attach importance to the employment of the disinfecting-trap in the outlet-pipe to the coffin."

Improvement in Poison Bottles: James W. Bowles; Oct. 10, 1876

During the 19th century, losing your poison among the assortment of other -- non-lethal -- liquids and tonics in your collection was evidently a common mishap. Or at least James W. Bowles thought as much, so he set out to solve that problem in 1876 with his coffin-shaped bottles.

Bowles explains in his patent: "(T)he peculiar shape of the bottle serves as a warning against the careless use of the contents."

Method of Preserving Corpses: Graham Hamrick; Jan. 5, 1892

Can a torch of burning sulfur really keep a body from decomposing? Graham Hamrick thought so.

In 1888, Hamrick devised a complicated process of embalming that included a plethora of chemicals and a burning sulfur torch that needed to be relit on a regular basis.

The record shows it took more than four years for his patent to be approved, but Hamrick defended his process:

"Subjects preserved by my procedure above set forth involving treatment for the longer period of about 40 days have been kept for many months through the hottest weather, in the open air, in a perfectly natural condition, and without any decomposition. I am unable to assign any limit to the continual preservation of such embalmed bodies."

Corpse Eye Closer: J.M. Spear; April 21, 1891

It turns out that "effectually adjusting and closing the eyelids of corpses in such manner as to impart thereto an undisturbed or natural appearance," was a difficult feat to perform in 1891 when J.M. Spear applied for a patent for his "Corpse Eye Closer."  

Spear's contraption, a rounded piece of metal with sharp, angled teeth, is meant to be slipped between the eyeball and the eyelid of the deceased.

Improvement in Combined Grave, Coffin and Monument: Leland M. Speers and Abraham Clark; July 6, 1875

Three for the price of one! Leland M. Speers and Abraham Clark sought to bring simplicity to the 19th-century burial -- and an added safety feature in case someone was buried alive.

In the gentlemen's own words: "(T)he features of the dead can be viewed at any time without removing the cover. This enables friends of the deceased who may have been absent at the time of the death and funeral to view the said deceased at any time they may wish. This construction also enables the body to be watched for any desired length of time, in cases where there may be doubt as to whether the body may be dead or in a trance state, until it revives or all doubt is removed."

Buried Alive Prevention

Being buried alive might be less of a concern today, but it was a real possibility in the 19th century, as evidenced by various patents from the era.

Many of these elaborate contraptions include all bells and whistles -- sometimes literally -- to prevent such mistakes. One even includes an air shaft to ensure proper breathing while the living soul awaits retrieval. Another is designed so that the mistakenly deceased must hit his or her head on the coffin to call for help.

Beheading Block and Ax: William Hanlon; Feb. 11, 1890

William Hanlon's patented Beheading Block and Ax is not nearly as deadly as it sounds. In fact, it's a turn-of-the-century magic trick.

Hanlon writes: "The object of this invention is to produce upon the stage in the presence of an audience and under full light an illusive beheading so nearly realistic that as the victim's head lies upon the block the descending ax and block give forth the natural thud of a blow, and the blade appears to actually sever the neck of the victim, and after the seeming separation of the head from the body both simultaneously fall, the body to the floor and the head apparently through the block to an opening at the base thereof at a point removed from its natural position, both in distance and angle, and all this without the employment of reflectors, such as are commonly used for illusive acts of this general character."