The Odor of Death

How do you deal with the smell of a decomposing body at a scene?

There is no smell like the smell of a body decomposing. I have seen even the most hardened investigator retch at the smell. Why do you think that they always send in the rookies to those kinds of death scenes? It is all the more emotionally charged when you consider that to smell something a molecule of that thing must enter your nose and lock into a sensory receptor. There are those that recommend smoking a cigar to cover it, but I consider that a waste of a perfectly good cigar. Others recommend a dab of Vapo-rub under the nose to cover it. If you think of that option and realize that it actually opens up your nasal passages to even more of the odor molecules, I think not. Face masks help some, a gas mask-like respirator device works, but is cumbersome.

It really is the worse smell in the world. It is likely the “eau de” or odor is intended to keep us away from the dead as they complete their journey back to the earth. It is worse than any other decomposing animal or plant. I usually describe it as the whiff you get when you open a Tupperware left way too long in the refrigerator times 1000.

If you don’t mind I’d like to get just a bit geeky, to prove that I still can. Besides it is kind of cool to realize that there is some value in being comfortable with a bit of chemistry. As your body decomposes it releases a variety of odiferous amines, somewhat related to the odiferous amines in the gas passed from your digestive tract. The two primary odiferous chemicals of great nicknames, but cumbersome chemical names. They are Cadaverine and Putrescine, that’s pentmethylenediamine and butanediamine to the chemistry nerds.

There are indeed times we in the field of death investigation have to push through the repelling olfactory assault of cadaverine and putrescine to do our job. (It isn’t always as glamourous as they portray on TV.) But even the most odiferous is treated with respect. We complete what we must. We work to get the answers we need from the bodies, knowing we will carry home just enough of the molecules from those bodies that we will smell them for a few days and that others will know what we do for a time from a tweak to their olfactory sensors as well.

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Tags: death, decomposition, odor

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