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cadaver, cadaver lab
A cadaver, also called corpse singular in medical, literary, and legal usage, or when intended for dissection, is a deceased body The obsolete British term lich for corpse, sometimes spelled lych, is no longer even listed in major British dictionaries such as Longman, Macmillan, Cambridge, or Oxford Online Dictionaries However, the term lich has been revived in modern fantasy fiction for a type of "undead" creature


  • 1 Human decay
    • 11 Stages of decomposition
  • 2 History
  • 3 Body snatching
  • 4 Embalming
  • 5 See also
  • 6 References
  • 7 Further reading
  • 8 External links

Human decay

Main article: Human decomposition Cadaver in Refrigerator in the Forensic Medicine at the Charité Berlin

Observation of the various stages of decomposition can help determine how long a body has been dead

Stages of decomposition

The first stage is autolysis, more commonly known as self-digestion, during which the body's cells are destroyed through the action of their own digestive enzymes However, these enzymes are released into the cells because of active processes ceasing in the cells, not as an active process In other words, though autolysis resembles the active process of digestion of nutrients by live cells, the dead cells are not actively digesting themselves as is often claimed in popular literature and as the synonym self-digestion of autolysis seems to imply As a result of autolysis, liquid is created that gets between the layers of skin and makes the skin peel off During this stage, flies when present start to lay eggs in the openings of the body: eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, open wounds, and other orifices Hatched larvae, maggots of blowflies, subsequently get under the skin and start to eat the body

The second stage of decomposition is bloating; bacteria in the gut begin to break down the tissues of the body, releasing gas that accumulates in the intestines, which becomes trapped because of the early collapse of the small intestine This bloating occurs largely in the abdomen, and sometimes in the mouth and genitals The tongue may swell This usually happens in about the second week of decomposition Gas accumulation and bloating will continue until the body is decomposed sufficiently for the gas to escape

The third stage is putrefaction It is the last and longest stage Putrefaction is where the larger structures of the body break down, and tissues liquefy The digestive organs, the brain, and lungs are the first to disintegrate Under normal conditions, the organs are unidentifiable after three weeks The muscles can be eaten by bacteria or devoured by animals Eventually, sometimes after several years, all that remains is the skeleton In acid-rich soils, the skeleton will eventually dissolve into its base chemicals


Greek physician Herophilus 335-280 BC , lived in 300 BC in Alexandria, Egypt He was the first physician on record to have dissected bodies The tradition of dissecting criminals was carried up into the eighteenth and nineteenth century when anatomy schools became popular in England and Scotland At that time, a greater percentage of Christians believed in the literal raising from the dead Because the souls of dissected bodies could not go to heaven, people rarely offered their bodies to science Criminals who were executed for their crimes were used as the first cadavers The demand for cadavers increased when the number of criminals being executed decreased Since corpses were in such high demand, it became commonplace to steal bodies from graves in order to keep the market supplied

The methods of preserving cadavers have changed over the last 200 years At that time, cadavers had to be used immediately because there were no adequate methods to keep the body from quickly decaying Preservation was needed in order to carry out classes and lessons about the human body Glutaraldehyde was the first main chemical used for embalming and preserving the body although it leaves a yellow stain in the tissues, which can interfere with observation and research

Formaldehyde is the chemical that is used as the main embalming chemical now It is a colorless solution that maintains the tissue in its lifelike texture and can keep the body well preserved for an extended period

Body snatching

Main article: Body snatching

Anatomy schools began to steal bodies from graves While "grave robbers" were technically people who stole jewelry from the deceased, some respected anatomy instructors dug up bodies themselves The anatomist Thomas Sewall, who later became the personal physician for three US presidents, was convicted in 1818 of digging up a corpse for dissection

Anatomists would even dissect members of their own family William Harvey, the man famous for discovering the circulatory system, was so dedicated he dissected his father and sister From 1827 to 1828 in Scotland, murders were carried out, so that the bodies could be sold to medical schools for cash These were known as the West Port murders The Anatomy Act of 1832 was formed and passed because of the murders H H Holmes, a noted serial killer in Chicago, Illinois, USA, sold the skeletons of some of his victims to medical schools

By 1828 anatomists were paying others to do the digging At that time, London anatomy schools employed ten full-time body snatchers and about 200 part-time workers during the dissection season This period ran from October to May, when the winter cold slowed down the decomposition of the bodies A crew of six or seven could dig up about 310 bodies

Disposing of the dissected body was difficult, and rumors have appeared about how anatomists might have managed One possibility was secretly burying the remains behind their school Another rumored possibility was that they gave the bodies to zoo keepers, as feed for carnivorous animals or burial beneath elephant grazing pens, or fed the bodies to vultures kept specifically for this purpose

Stories appeared of people murdering for the money they could make off cadaver sales Two of the most famous are that of Burke and Hare, and that of Bishop, May, and Williams

  • Burke and Hare — Burke and Hare ran a boarding house When one of their tenants died, they brought him to Robert Knox's anatomy classroom in Edinburgh where they were paid seven pounds for the body Realizing the possible profit, they murdered 16 people by asphyxiation over the next year and sold their bodies to Knox They were eventually caught when a tenant returned to her bed only to encounter a corpse Hare testified against Burke in exchange for amnesty and Burke was found guilty, hanged, and publicly dissected
  • London Burkers, Bishop, May and Williams — These body snatchers also killed three boys, ages ten, 11 and 14 years old The anatomist that they sold the cadavers to was suspicious To delay their departure the anatomist said he needed to break a 50-pound note He sent for the police who arrested the men In Bishop's confession he stated, "I have followed the course of obtaining a livelihood as a body snatcher for 12 years, and have obtained and sold, I think from 500 to 1,000 bodies"


Main article: Embalming The embalming process includes the use of specialist chemicals

When a corpse is buried, the body will decompose by the actions of anaerobic bacteria In many countries, corpses buried in coffins are embalmed An embalmer may prepare the corpse for a lifelike appearance Embalming fluid is then pumped into the body via an artery commonly carotid, or femoral This rehydrates the tissues and severely reduces the pace of decomposition

Embalming is used to preserve the corpse temporarily, but may last for years In some countries, such as the United States and Japan, make-up is applied to the corpse to prepare the body for public presentation The corpse is then ready to go into the coffin The embalmers then lower the corpse into the coffin, and then lower the coffin into the grave

See also

  • Anatomy Act 1832
  • Autopsy
  • Body farm
  • Cadaverine, a foul-smelling chemical released during decomposition
  • Dissection
  • Eloise Cemetery


  1. ^ New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1999 cadaver Medicine: or poetic/literary: a cait

Further reading

  • Jones, D Gareth 2000 Speaking for the Dead: Cadavers in Biology and Medicine Aldershot: Ashgate ISBN 0-7546-2073-5 
  • Roach, Mary 2003 Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers New York, NY: WW Norton and Company Inc 
  • Shultz, Suzanne 1992 Body Snatching The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc 
  • Wright-St Clair, RE February 1961 "Murder For Anatomy" New Zealand Medical Journal 60: 64–69 

External links

  • Documents: Cadavers Netted Hundreds of Thousands
  • Selling Bodies, Making Profits
  • Medicos Foil Bid to Sell Cadavers
  • Origins of Exhibited Cadavers Questioned

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