Variants of Decomposition

Drying (mummification) is a variant of decomposition. Localized drying can affect the tip of the partly exposed tongue, the lips, the tips of fingers and toes, and the scrotum (Figs. 32-34). If the eyelids are not closed after death, then scleral drying appears as a horizontal brown line (taches noires sclérotiques; see Fig. 35). Another eye change is corneal clouding. It occurs 2 to 3 h after death if the eyes are open, and by 24 h if they are shut (6,8). Generalized transformation of skin to a brown-black leathery consistency happens under dry conditions (Fig. 36). An "empty" body—i.e., empty body cavities—is sometimes seen (63). Although the estimated time for generalized mummification in temperate climates is months, the author has observed it 1 mo after death in his locale (southwestern Ontario in the summer). Mummification is possible in the snow (64).

Postmortem Drying The Tongue
Fig. 33. Postmortem drying of fingertips: a challenge for police officers trying to obtain fingerprints.
Mummification Pathology
Fig. 34. Postmortem drying of scrotum, mimicking bruising.
Fig. 35. "Taches noires." Scleral drying artifact.

• Significance

° Drying of fingertips makes fingerprinting a challenge (Fig. 33; refs. 65 and 66). ° The localized dark discoloration seen in a dried scrotum or tongue mimics injury (Figs. 32 and 34). Incision into the site reveals no hemorrhage. Examination of the removed testes shows no abnormality. ° Scleral drying artifact suggests antemortem hemorrhage (Fig. 35). The artifact does not extend elsewhere on the sclera.

Skeletonized Remains
Fig. 36. Mummification. Leather-like skin in pelvic area of partly skeletonized remains.

Another variant of decomposition is adipocere (adipo = fat, cere = wax), a dirty yellow, greasy, or clay-like material formed by alteration of subcutaneous fat by endogenous lipases and bacterial enzymes (Fig. 37; refs. 45 and 67). Hydrolysis of triglycerides leads to liquified neutral fats (storage fats), which penetrate adjacent soft tissue (e.g., muscle) and viscera. Bacterial enzymes transform unsaturated fatty acids into saturated forms, mainly palmitic and stearic acid. These fatty acids have higher melting points (palmitic acid = 63°C or 142°F, stearic acid = 81°C or 176°F) than the temperature of a gravesite (3-16°C or 37-59°F). As a result, the fatty acids crystallize, leading to the formation of a firm solid. Adipocere is more likely to form in an obese body or a female because of a higher fat content (45). Numerous other factors have been proposed in the development of adipocere (e.g., moist or water-logged soils) (45). Adipocere is variably distributed on the body surface and encases bones; it has also been noted in a fatty liver. Adipocere can remain unchanged for years (45). The reduced water solubility of adipocere means that a corpse can retain its shape. The estimated time of occurrence of adipocere in temperate climates is several months postmortem (45).

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