The stuff of legend
It’s the bewildering exhumation in which a cadaver laid to rest perhaps tens or even hundreds of years before emerges beautifully and extraordinally well-preserved; saved from the clutches of decomposition and without any of its common effects on skin or bone. We’re talking, of course, about what preserved saints and the people we came to regard as vampires may have in common. It’s somewhat controversial, we realise, to scientifically explain what the Roman Catholic church has long-considered the divinely-ordained and miraculous phenomenon that gave rise to a legion of saints known as “the incorruptibles.” Such interventions by science into the realm of religion are not oft taken kindly; as articles of faith by some should be far removed from disciplines that disregard it as secondary to the hard hold of empiricism. There was an obvious absence of any spiritualism when grave-diggers in England happened upon preserved bodies and decided that they were vampires who awoke in the night to victimise the living. Still, it’s an interesting question. If we were to look at these bodies in a different way, how could we explain what’s going on here? Two words: grave wax.
Good fats and grave wax
The technical name for this is adipocere, and it’s just that: a wax-like organic (or carbon-containing) substance. It’s thought to be formed by a process called saponification which is engineered by certain bacteria and occurs in the body’s fatty tissues. From start to finish, body fat is gradually and substantively replaced by a sort of cast of fatty tissues — which of course, are ubiquitous in the body (around the internal organs and in the face, for instance). Probably as strange as the phenomenon itself is considering that it’s a process that we’ve known about for a while: it came to be understood in the 17th century when microscopes become as omnipresent on the lab-bench as a geneticist’s PCR machine.
Recipe of a death mask
If you were the curious type, dissecting such a corpse would lead you to stumble upon a rather crumbly and water-insoluble material that is essentially composed of saturated fatty acids. When formed from white fats, the colour is grayish white; and when formed from brown “insulation” fat, it takes on a tan colour. Grave wax is more likely to form where oxygen is lacking and in a cold and humid environment. Leave a corpse in wet ground or in mud at the bottom of a lake, and you’ll find that saponification may begin to occur within a month of death. The phenomenon can persist for centuries in the absence of air flow. Another interesting tidbit (perhaps not well-suited to the dinner party): children’s bodies are far more likely to be preserved in this way because of a high relative body fat in comparison to their adult (deceased) counterparts. And yes, this means that if you take to indulging in your chocolate cake a little too often, you might also have the chance to scare someone who comes grave-digging in your cemetery one evening. Your Turn: Do you think that saponification or the process of grave wax is different to whatever is driving preservation in saints? Let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.