Corpses are rotting more slowly than they used to -- is it because we are germophobic?

UC Berkeley psychology professor and author of The Shangri-La Diet: No Hunger, Eat Anything, Weight-Loss Plan, has been writing about the health benefits of cultured food (see: Probiotics and Resistance to Illness, The Dose-Response Revolution and Fermented Food, How Things Begin (Japan Traditional Foods), Antibiotics Associated with Later Infection, The Good Scots Diet, and many other entries about fermented food).

In a recent post, Roberts says he thinks that the shift in the 1960s from home-made food to processed food, which has resulted in people having less bacteria in their bodies, has caused corpses to rot more slowly than they used to.

A friend of mine, who went to college at MIT around 1980, had a classmate who was the son of an undertaker. His dad had told him that when he (the dad) had entered the business, you had to work fast. Bodies would start to smell quickly. But now — around 1980 — that was no longer necessary. You could wait a lot longer before they smelled bad.

Which I take to mean that around 1980 the average old person, where this classmate came from, had a lot less bacteria in their body than around 1960.

How Fast Do We Rot?


  1. It’s not that we have less bacteria, its that we eat a LOT more preservatives than we did 40 years ago.

    Keeps us ‘fresh’ in the box, no different than a twinkie.

  2. Am I the only one who thinks that this will bite us quite literally in the buttock once the zombie-apocalypse cometh?

  3. I just saw a Bill Nye where he said the reason we decay more slowly is the high levels of formaldehyde that we are absorbing while alive from our environment. He mentioned that there is even formaldehyde in some toothpaste.

    1. It is truly sad when the the kiddies science guy from TV has a more plausible, robust explanation for a (supposed) slower rate of decomp. It sounds caustic, I know, but Professor barely-mentioned-by-name is a little free with the uncontrolled anecdotal data. I wonder how eating pickles is supposed to change that, or is that the desired state: pickled amongst the daisies? UC really? Hmm. His degree must read PLS.

  4. An old classmate of mine was the son of a fisherman, who said, “When I first started fishing I used to come home reeking, but after years of fishing, I really don’t smell so bad anymore.”

    PROOF that fish now smell less fishy than they used to!

  5. Wouldn’t it really be climate control? Or dying in hospitals so off to the deep freeze faster than if you died at home in the 60s?

  6. Precisely, #3.

    It’s because they know, THEY KNOW!!

    Not long now…

    When dawns the zombie holocaust (as heralded by the rise of the third generation of Splenda babies), ALL shall know the truth!

  7. the formaldahyde myth may be bunk, but many of us are eating craploads of hard to process preservatives, not to mention teflon.

  8. Agree #7: 1980 is when the undertaker’s sense of smell (or his brain’s perception of the smell of rotting corpses!) started to diminish.

    There’s just no way we’re somehow keeping microbes out of our bodies now.

  9. IF there is any truth at all to this (anecdotal evidence of a decades-long trend based on one person’s experience is hiiiiiiiiighly suspect), a much more likely explanation would be that more of us die in hospitals now than 50 years ago, where we are very likely to have received antibiotics that eliminate a lot of our gastrointestinal flora just before death, thereby slowing decomposition.

    The blanket claim that “people have less bacteria in their bodies than they used to” sounds like utter bunk. The bacterial demographics of our gastrointestinal tracts may be a little different than they were 50 years ago (e.g. lower rates of H. pylori carriage), but any individual species that we might lose will quickly be replaced by others. Our guts are prime real estate for bugs, and there’s no keeping them out.

  10. This reminds me of a song my Dad had on LP growing up. Randy Stonehill’s “American Fastfood: What a Stupid Way to Die.”
    A verse in the song begins, and I quote from memory (grammar anomalies included):
    “You won’t have to embalm me, when my life is through. There’s so many preservatives in what I eat, the job’s being done right now, for you!”

    Youtube disappoints only in realization that my memories of the song are much better than the live version I found…of course this was the epitome of fun to my 6 year old self growing up in an evangelical christian household in 1990.

  11. Of course, it could just be that mortuaries are more hygenic than they used to be.

    Just a thought.

  12. I’m pretty sure that Al Jaffee first proposed this in Mad Magazine sometime in the 70s. I can’t cite a specific issue, but he said that embalming would soon no longer be necessary because of all the preservatives in our diet.

    In general, you can assume that anything you read in Mad will or has come true.

  13. I remember hearing this a decade or so ago on NPR, I remember it as being from a undertaker trade group.
    We may have less diversity in our flora due to antibiotics from medicines, antibiotics from agriculture, soaps and cleaning products with antibiotics, food with preservatives. Individual bacteria are often specific in what they can degrade(see:
    so if a handful of the type that eat a certain step are missing, or in smaller numbers, we may degrade less slowly. Or we may degrade, but misss the step that leads to strong odors.
    Maybe it’s just the reservoir of trans fats in us that refuse to go rancid.

  14. #5:
    Our bodies naturally make formaldehyde, which makes that a poor argument. Bill Nye still rocks, though.

  15. This isn’t just anecdotal evidence…it’s lousy anecdotal evidence. Thirty people saying the same thing would still be anecdotal, but at least something to start wondering about, doing a few tests on or something. One person commenting on their own distant recollections of smell?? Pftt. On the other hand, he says you can lose weight…eating anything…without being hungry!!! That’s all I need to know. I’m sold!

    But, whether true or false, is this info useful to anyone who isn’t trying to resurrect the dead?

    Nevermind…I realize that the resurrecting-the-dead demographic is very important to our society. Hope I haven’t stepped on any toes. And please don’t eat my brains.

  16. I’d like to apologize. In an earlier comment, I suggested that Al Jaffee first floated this idea in Mad magazine.

    It was actually, of course, from the October ’76 article “Mad’s Packager of the Year”, written by Stan Hart with art by Jack Rickard. The actual exchange is

    Julie Eisenpower: “Look at this list of preservatives! it can’t possibly be good for people!”

    Alan Caveat-Emptor: “Not now, perhaps, but later it saves them big money! Figuring on an average of two of these packages a week, by the time the consumer dies, he’ll have enough preservatives in his body to make the expensive embalming procedures unnecessary!”

    I regret this foolish and intemperate error, and apologize to anyone who may have been damaged or disappointed by it.

  17. @ #13 – mdh
    >the formaldahyde myth may be bunk, but many of us are eating craploads of hard to process preservatives, not to mention teflon.

    Which will either pass right through you or destroy your liver.

    I strongly doubt preservatives have any kind of effect on decay time.

  18. #21
    We also make hydrochloric acid and electricity. Too much of those not good either. The fact we make it doesn’t mean that higher concentrations of formaldehyde in the wrong compartment is not an issue.

  19. I’m fairly sure this is nothing more than an urban legend, but it is possible to find out for certain.

    The body farm is an ongoing research project at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN. Inside the closed off area, they place human bodies in different environmental conditions and allow them to decay, monitoring the process and recording the time at which different stages of decay occur. Much of what we know about forensic science is based on their research. Since it’s been going on since 1981, I’m quite sure that they would be aware of any change in the rate at which a human corpse decays over the last 28 years.

  20. Or maybe after decades working with the known carcinogenic toxin formaldehyde, the mortician had managed to fix most of his nasal sensory cells, accelerating the normal age-related loss of smell sensation. Also, habituation probably plays a big role here.

  21. better refrigeration?

    I dont think folk should say things like this without proper evidence. yes science is boring but at least its honest.

  22. HAH! Those are the people who thought they were gonna live forever by banning second-hand smoke!

  23. #23 TomPolley

    Thank you for both your frankness and swift action upon realizing your mistake. It looks like we may have out-ridden the worst of it, but we’ll have to make it through the night to be sure.

    God help us all.

  24. I think his dad probably got a new air conditioner sometime around 1980.

    Or maybe even got his first air conditioner.

  25. @chevan

    I strongly doubt preservatives have any kind of effect on decay time.

    really? then what are they doing in our food if not preserving them from decay?

  26. the incorruptibility of my mortal, fleshy remains will merely prove sainthood. That or pickling.

  27. I had a Greek friend back in the early 90’s who told the same story. He said back in Greece, they recycle the cemetery plots. But that as of the early 90’s, the villages were having problems because the bodies were not decomposing as fast, so they couldn’t reuse the plot as quickly and the cemeteries were filled with no more room.

    I have never been to Greece, I am no in touch with this friend (Hi Nic!) but I have never forgotten the story.

  28. #27
    Actually, habituation with formaldehyde sensitizes you to it. A misspent youth spent in microscopy means I sneeze and wheeze when exposed to higher concentrations of formaldehyde. No, I haven’t rented myself out to FEMA to do quality control for their trailers. No tumours yet…

  29. #35, a Type 1 hypersensitivity reaction to formaldehyde mediated through IgE/basophils/mast cells and affecting your nasal sensory cells does not preclude the possibility that their functioning number has been greatly reduced. IgE is so immunogenic that the strength of the post-sensitisation reaction does not tell you very much about the quantity of receptors involved. In some people, barely or sub-sensitive levels of allergan can generate anaphylaxis.

  30. Advice for (cold-blooded/forward thinking) murderers: if possible, try and convince your prospective victim to take Yakult or another similar pro-biotic supplement for a few weeks before hand, to give those li’l evidence-scrubbers a head start!

  31. True, different systems. But I’m guessing (unscientifically) that it may be besides the point. I had a weak sense of smell prior to my exposure to formaldehyde. I’ve anecdotally noted that few people go into chemistry or biochemistry if they have a good sense of smell. I would guess few people would wish to be morticians if they had a decent nose. There’s other components of rotting besides odor.

  32. that’s how the Iceman got his name; he’d keep his clients on ice after the hit to mess up the time of death and cover his alibi.

  33. Just wanted to agree with anon. @21, Bill Nye does indeed rock. I just had to go google the .wav file of the theme song, now I’m all pumped up…



  34. Next time I met with Mictlantecuhtli for tea I will ask him if people have been recently been rotting more slowly in the land of the dead.

    Then again, if this trend is for real, I hope someone gets funding for doing the research and finding the causes.

  35. n=1
    Not great experimental evidence. Much easier to blog than pass peer-review. Psychologists are supposed to know about statistics . . .

  36. I had an interesting conversation with a Pathologist a couple of years ago who said the exact same thing – along the lines of “when i came into this profession you had to be pretty speedy and if you left a body out for more than a day it could get pretty revolting – now it seems you can leave a cadaver for nigh on 2 weeks without much decay”

    He also talked about preservatives – suggesting that you were literally being pickled alive! – which i must say i find much more plausible than the bacteria theory….

  37. in 1980 the average old person, where this classmate came from, had a lot less bacteria in their body than around 1960.

    This is arrant nonsense. Bacterial cells outnumber human cells by ten to one in the average human body.

    I’d like to repeat that, because it boggles my mind. Your body is 90% bacteria, and only 10% human.

  38. @#48 Beanolini:

    From the article you referenced:

    All the bacteria living inside you would fill a half-gallon jug; there are 10 times more bacterial cells in your body than human cells

    But, but, … I fill way more than a half-gallon jug myself!

  39. @ Ark: I guess I knew that, but does that mean that all my cells are only 1/20th of a gallon? That’s less than a cup?!

    (Or, perhaps, bacterial cells as a whole are much smaller than mine? If that’s the case, I can relax again).

  40. Hmm.. ok, I don’t use gallons, so I wasn’t aware it was that small a measure. A cup of human-material does seem like a silly amount :)

    “Lean muscle tissue contains about 75% water by weight. Blood contains 95% water, body fat contains 14% water and bone has 22% water. Skin also contains much water.

    The human body is about 60% water in adult males and 55% in adult females.”

    So, there’s something we are missing, for sure..

  41. @48 Beanolini: is this not compensated for by the size differential? It’s a while since I studied biology but I’m sure I recall that bacteria are orders of magnitude smaller than most human cells.

  42. #53, NotACat (3, nosehat):

    is this not compensated for by the size differential? It’s a while since I studied biology but I’m sure I recall that bacteria are orders of magnitude smaller than most human cells.

    Yes, bacterial cells are about ten times smaller than human cells.

    So their volume would be about one thousandth that of a human cell (if we assume they’re roughly spherical). Therefore with 10x as many bacterial cells as human, they would occupy approximately one hundredth of body volume and/or mass. Excluding bones.

  43. Bacteria is a huge catch-all for incredibly diverse groups of species. Differences between strains of bacteria are more significant that the differences between us and insects. Also, a small change in a single species/strian of bacteria can mean the difference between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria, (and likely, betwee rotting and non-rotting). Such a change can happen for a known reason that makes sense like preservatives or antibiotics, by mutation or for no reason we can deduce at the moment. The overall prevalence of bacteria as a whole due not likely increase that much during an epidemic nor wane during the lack of one, but the characteristics may well change without us being aware of it. Should a rotting strain of bacteria be on the verge of extinction, this is probably be how we find out.
    I’m calling the World Wildlife Fund to see if they’ll start funding conservation efforts for putrefying strains of bacteria. Before it’s too late…

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