Research can be fun, or it can make you feel squeamish.
For instance, there are a bazillion little things a writer might need to look up. Like finding out if Saran Wrap was used in the 50’s, or, if your character’s taxes go unpaid, how quickly will their problems come about, and just what are those problems? Liens? Auctions? And, what happens then? Put some songs into your manuscript and you better know the year the music came out. And words…, if you’re trying to capture a particular era, or a certain decade, it would not be “groovy,” to say “groovy,” if the time frame of your story is in the 80’s. Stuff like that.
But, then there’s the kind of research you almost cringe over. Maybe it’s from my old IT days when I knew that the company’s WAN wasn’t intended for personal use. Maybe it’s knowing how they used to scan for particular bits of information related to porn, or on line gambling and the like that makes me paranoid about looking up the bizarre, or sick or weird stuff. Whatever it is that makes me feel strange, it couldn’t have been any worse when I decided I was going to have to look up details on death.
If you are the queasy type, you might not want to read much further. I will admit, thinking about any of this too hard, or reading too much of the topic definitely makes me feel a little less stable in the mid-section. So, I’ve got some warnings here to stop you before you get mad at me for not giving a heads up.
***WARNING!!!*** Graphic descriptions of morbid nastiness follows!!!
Okay, (chews Alka Seltzer) here we go:
What happens to a decomposing body and why would I need to know? For one, my protagonist’s parents are killed and their bodies end up in the river. They will be discovered and I want to write about that accurately. Also, another guy is killed and not discovered by the police until the next day. I wrote that he was bloated, but…, I was wrong about that, and I thought, what else could I get wrong? (everything!)
How strange it is to Google “what happens after death?” Lucky me that I needed to do this sort of research and I am here to share it with you. Doesn’t that make you feel good? Well, read on.
Immediately after death, the heart stops, the skin goes waxy and gray in color. Muscles relax – everywhere – and you know what that means. The body temperature will drop about a degree and a half every hour from this point on…, and men, well men…they get an erection. (Supposedly this was why women attended hangings back in the old days – I guess as a source of amusement. “Oh look! Tee hee!” And they say our society today is crude. Gah.) Interestingly (??) the liver stays warm the longest, and this is used to determine the time of death if the body is found within that time frame.
After thirty minutes or so, the skin is now purple and waxy. Lips, fingers, and toenails fade or turn white as the blood recedes. The blood will also pool at the lowest parts of the body – like if the body is left on it’s back, it will leave a bruised looking sort of color. This is called “lividity.” <<<(feel free to have fun with that link there) The hands and feet turn blue and the eyes start to sink into the skull. When I learned about all this, it made perfect sense. When our heart is no longer forcing blood through our veins, it’s got to go somewhere, and that somewhere means the lowest point. Like water settling in a concave area of ground.
With me still? Or have you left?
Now we are four hours into death, and rigor mortis sets in…, and the blood continues to settle, and the skin continues to get purple. Rigor mortis is fully established at twelve hours and will reverse after about twenty four hours, and the body will become pliable again, but…that’s when things really start to get gross.
Twenty four hours in, the head and neck are a nice, greenish, bluish color. There is a distinct smell of rotting meat, and the person is essentially no longer recognizable. No kidding? After only twenty four hours? Huh. What else? Well, if it’s 75 degrees outside, that’s the temperature of the body as well. The body will be whatever temperature the surroundings are.
Three days after, gases in the body tissues build up and form blisters, and the body begins to bloat and swell. (see I was wrong factually and will need to change this). This process is speeded up if the body is in a hot environment, or in the water. (I needed to know this too) Fluids leak from eyes, ears, mouth, and everywhere else.
Three weeks in, hair, skin, and nails can be pulled off. The skin cracks and splits. Decomposition will continue until the body is nothing but bones (about a month in warm temperatures) and about two months in cold. The teeth are the hardest thing in the body and so is the jawbone so they are the things usually left years (or centuries) later.
One last thing…if your person drowns – or – as in my story they end up in the water after death, but, aren’t found for weeks? Expect them to melt like butter when pulled out of the water – that is if they can even be pulled from the water. Nice little detail at the end. Say thank you.
I do not envy medical examiners, that’s what I know at this point. Oh, and that if you aren’t sufficiently grossed out, you’ve missed your calling.
What is the most bizarre research you’ve ever done for your story?