Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.1: Getting to the Bones…

One of the “dirty jobs” (I mean stinky and sorta dirty literally) of Forensic Anthropologist is doing maceration. Maceration is the process of getting rid of all the soft tissues, aka tendons, fleshes, muscles, and so on. It includes processes from picking the tissues (requires concentration and focus like you separating types of beans from a big mixing bowl! ), and cleaning the bone with detergent. This usually happens to unclaimed bodies stored in the morgue or randomly found human remains before doing any examinations. And in our case this time, just because the individual has been in the freezer long enough and unclaimed, we need to free up some space. After cleaning, bones are well-documented, and place in a paper box with well-documented details, and stored in the bone room. I can tell you some in the bone room have even preserved the hair (real hair!) and the finger nails.

Decomposing bodies especially those before or suitable maceration usually have stronger odor than the regular dead bodies found in usual autopsy morgue. I was kind of trying to prepare myself for the odor (though did not really know how to!) before entering the decomp autopsy room.

In Cantonese, “salty fish” (haam yu) is a slang term to describe a dead body. “Salty fish” is literally a fish that sautéed in salt and dried under the sun. It was used for preservation in the last decades (it makes fried rice taste better too!). The decomposing body, I assure you, smells exactly the same as “salty fish” to me. And I now understand why the slang came out like so. If you really have no clue, go to the closest chinatown in your place, find a dried seafood stall, and ask if they have salty fish for sell. Take a sniff, it wakes you up better than your morning cup of joe! (But it smells really nice when you made fried rices with diced salty fish and chicken :p nom nom…)

Maceration really fascinates me! The individual I helped handle and macerate is an unknown male, passed away in 2012. He has been autopsied and remained in the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department cooler for the past two years. Part of the body of this individual has been mummified. The mummified condition shows profoundly on his skull, mandible, rib cage and his lower legs. The legs are covered with mummified skins with molds on the. What really fascinating is that when we went the scalpel through his upper thighs, flesh in both of the thighs  are still fresh red (the left femur though is more brick red, not sure about the reason). It is really interesting that for the body has already sit in a cooler for more than two years but the flesh inside could be still blood red.

Bone room the “playground” of  forensic anthropologist, full of unknown remains that are hoping for getting a positive identification to provide closure to the families. Being in the bone room excites me again (which reminds me the first excitement I worked on biological profiling in my Forensic Anthropology class)! Yet, these individuals, especially when we went through some of the cases in the room, make me wonder if their loved ones still looking for them.

As you all may be aware that, every cadaver is bio-hazard. We need full protection. And that’s how we do it:

Cap + double gloves + full coverage surgical mask +scrubs + gown + protection booties = full gear!


Yeeeep! That’s me 🙂 Gearing up!

“I shall fear you with a handful of dust.”-T.S. Eliot.

The fear of death does not come from the death per se, but is the fear that no one will remember you or know you are dead. I think all of these individuals in the bone room once had the same thoughts, and their families deserve an answer.

*You may wish to read about some background on the internship here (Prelude).