is a dead human body
. "Cadaver" is normally used as a more formal term
for a body being used in medical training or research.
The various stages of decomposition can help determine how long a
body has been dead.
The first stage is self digestion, also known as autolysis
. This happens when the cells break down
the body into elements the cells can eat; this creates a liquid
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
, open wounds, and other orifices. Hatched
) 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 due to the
early collapse of the small
. 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
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 carnivorous animals. Eventually, sometimes
after several years, all that remains is the skeleton
When a corpse is buried, the body will decompose by the actions of
anaerobic bacteria. In many countries, corpses buried in coffins
. An embalmer may clean and
shave the face, fill the eye sockets with cotton to make them
appear full, and suture the jaw together to keep it from hanging
open. 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 societies, such as the United States, make-up is
applied to the corpse to make the body presentable 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.
A brief history of cadavers
The methods of preserving cadavers, and their acquisition, have
changed over the last 200 years. 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
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
formed and passed because of the murders.
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. Glutaraldehyde
leaves a yellow stain in the
tissues, which can interfere with observation and research.
is the chemical that is
used as the main embalming chemical now. It is a colorless solution
that maintains the tissue in its life-like texture and can keep the
body well preserved for up to six weeks.
Body snatching over the years
, the “father of anatomy”,
lived in 300 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. He was the first physician to
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, 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. The only cadavers available were
criminals', and anatomists
as no better than an executioner.
Anatomy schools began to steal bodies from graves. "Grave robbers"
were technically people who stole jewelry from the deceased, but
stealing the dead body was not a crime. Some anatomy instructors
encouraged this "body snatching". Students sometimes paid tuition
in corpses or dug up bodies as late night pranks.
Some respected anatomy instructors dug up bodies themselves. The
anatomist Thomas Sewell
, who later
became the personal physician for three U.S. 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.
By 1828 anatomists were paying others to do the digging. At that
time, London anatomy schools employed ten full time body snatchers
and about two hundred part timer 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 312 bodies. The average body snatcher made about
1,000 dollars a year, ten times more than the average unskilled
laborer of that time period, with summers off.
The poor were most vulnerable, because they could not afford
coffins to keep the body snatchers out.
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
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 boardinghouse. 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 sixteen people by asphyxiation over the next year and sold their
bodies to Knox. They were eventually caught when a tenant returned
to her bed in search of a lost glove only to encounter a corpse.
Hare testified against Burke in exchange for amnesty and Burke was
found guilty, hanged, and publicly dissected. Hare returned to
England where he allegedly worked as a plasterer’s apprentice until
his employer supposedly found out his identity and had him thrown
into a lime pit. He is said to have been blinded and to have begged
on the streets for the rest of his life.
- Bishop, May and Williams — These body snatchers also
killed three boys, ages ten, eleven and fourteen years old. The
anatomist that they sold the cadavers to was suspicious. To delay
their departure the anatomist said he needed to break a fifty 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
lively hood as a body snatcher for twelve years, and have obtained
and sold, I think from 500 to 1,000 bodies”
By the 1890s body snatching was less common and by the 20th century
it had all but disappeared. Embalming and preservation of cadavers
became more advanced and education in medical schools improved.
Students no longer had to quickly dissect bodies before they
decomposed. These dissections were orderly and complete.
Improvements in medical school, including a graded curriculum,
meant doctors were better educated. The medical profession received
new esteem by diagnosing and healing more people. With that respect
came a larger supply of cadavers, making body snatching almost
- OED, 1989 edition. cadever "A dead body, esp. of man; a corpse.
(Now chiefly in technical lang.
- Jones, D.Gareth: Speaking for the Dead: Cadavers in Biology
and Medicine: Aldershot: Ashgate: 2000: ISBN 0754620735
- Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human
Cadavers. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company Inc.,
- Shultz, Suzanne. Body Snatching The Robbing of Graves for
the Education of Physicians. Jefferson, North Carolina:
McFarland & Company Inc. 1992.
- Wright-St. Clair, R.E. Murder For Anatomy. New Zealand
Medical Journal 60: 64-69, February 1961.