Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.6: Forensic Concerns Behind the Bodies..

In this morning meeting, other than the five cases listed on the sheet, one extra case came in (if you do not understand what meeting or what is the sheet I am referring to, you may want to skim through this post first). It was a male that found in a canal.

According to the death/ medical investigator, he is a native American, and the family requested no autopsy due to their (religious) belief. The M.E. suggested doing an external autopsy and documentation of the body. This is the first time I encounter and realize pathologists’ hand could be tied not only because of family requests, but also jurisdiction.

According to American Indian Law, the Native Americans have their own police and they have jurisdiction on every member of the reservation, regardless they are indeed inside or out of the reservation.

While doing the external, the first thing the M.E. pointed out is the foam the coming out from the deceased mouth, which indeed is a mix of body fluids, and blood. This is always the sign of drowning as water has entered the thoracic cavity. Also the purplish color of the deceased face that stopped at his clavicles (the collar bones) is also a sign of drowning. Since the pathologist cannot open up the body, the M.E. only can examine him via external traumas. He suspects that is a blunt force trauma by touching the deceased’s head, as well as there are wounds on both interior parietal bones. A theory has it that he might be unconscious after his car hit on an object, and also because he was not wearing a seat belt, he was possibly then fell into a canal after that. That’s pretty much the info we could get from an external autopsy. The body was claimed by the Reservation jurisdiction later that afternoon.

On top of that, there was one decomposing body for autopsy today. According to the police, it is in its “advanced stage of decomposition”. According to forensic anthropologists, bodies that undergo advanced stage of decomposition should be “sagging of flesh; caving of abdominal cavity; loss of internal organs; extensive maggot activity; mummification of outer tissue; less than half of the skeleton exposed; adipocere may be present.” (Byers 100)  This stage suggests partial skeletonization and not much soft tissues on the remains. Yet, the body was in fact only in its primary decomposition stage OR just passed the primary decomposition stage and entering the advanced decomposition stage at most. (According to Byers (100), primary composition stage requires “some flesh relatively fresh; decoloration can vary from gray to green or brown to black; some skin slippage and hair loss; body bloated or deflated; skin may have leathery appearance.”) This is the first time for me to encounter the differences of classifications between the legal forces and pathologists/ anthropologists.

Though I remembered that my professor mentioned once in my forensic class, I never knew that there would be such a difference. This kind of makes you wonder what can be done to make the whole observation process or the examination process more in line with each law enforcement agents, in order to speed up the investigation.

Previous Episodes:

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series : Prelude

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

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.2: Two Lives in One Body…

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.3: Bone Donation

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.4: Two Cases (and bone overgrown on the skull)

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.5: Gunshot and Projectile Trauma


American Indian Law

Byers, Steven N.. (2011). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, pp. 100.

Exhumation: Forensics? Grave Robber? Ancestral Worship? (Graphics and Chinese references included)

Exhumation, the act of digging up the buried corpses.

Forensic experts, especially forensic anthropologists are those who may request an exhumation for further analysis. Reasons usually include: incorrect I.D. of the deceased, incomplete “tox screen”, or improper wound analysis. This type of exhumation should go through normal and legal protocol before investigation begins.

Yet, exhumation can also be done illegally–when a bodysnatcher, grave robber visit the grave; or exhumation can be done because of mortuary ritual and culture (like in Madagascar, Hong Kong, and Taiwan)

Why don’t we begin with the exciting, but crazy illegal bodysnatcher case?

In October 2014, a grieving mother, Natalia Chardymova spoke about the evil bodysnatcher arrested 3 years ago for digging up 29 young girls from their graves, turned them into life-size dolls, and have them accompanied at his home. Ten-year-old Olga, daughter of Natalia Chardymova was one of the dolls found in the bodysnatcher, Anatoly Moskvin place.


Anatoly Moskvin (Source:

Anatoly Moskvin, a well-known historian in the Russia academia ransacked graveyards and kept dozens of corpses of young girls in his bedroom. He dressed the mummified young girls’ bodies in stockings, girl’s clothing, knee length boots, even applying lipsticks and make-up to their faces. He also put music boxes into their rib cage. He told the parents of the girls while he was being arrested, “you abandoned your girls in the cold, and I brought them home and warmed them up.”

Olga was murdered when she was 10. She said she was big enough to go her granny’s apartment on her own before she got killed. Chardymova, mother of Olga remembered the crazy notes she found, signed with D.A.–Dorby Angel or Kind Angel Moskvin would call himself in front of Olga’s grave. She says he would carefully count her grades, public holidays as if she is still alive. He eventually threatened the parents of Olga saying if they do not take care of her probably, he [they] would dig her body out.


Ten-year-old Olga (left) and her remains as a doll (right). (Source:

No crime is charged against Moskvin, but has locked up in an asylum since then. Out of the investigation, media reported that he has singled out the Muslim graves. Even though he is claimed and declared to be mentally ill, he to certain extents is still having a clear and rational mind, given that he showed his perspective and take on religion or culture.

It is sick. Though it is a crime and disrespectful to the family, to Moskvin, it is a desceration no other than the exhumation, or “digging up bones” (揀骨 in Taiwan, or 執骨 in Hong Kong), or Famadihana in Madagascar.

Every culture and every society has its own way to mourn and has its own customs to remember the deceased.

Taiwan and Hong Kong: Digging up bones

In Hong Kong and Taiwanese culture, the re-burial is called “digging up bones.” These rituals adapted not only in the above mentioned two places, but in fact are relatively common in Southern Chinese cultures. In Taiwan, the phrase “jiangu” also carries the meaning of “jianjin”, or “digging up gold”, which shows the value of ancestor worship and respect in their culture. Back in the days, this ritual linked to the migration culture, which allows people bring their ancestors’ remains back to the origin or diaspora for burial.

Both culture share the same taboos: Deceased who were under 16 years of age by the time he or she expired is not eligible for having the this ritual.

Pregnant women are not eligible to be part of this ritual.

Each “digging the bones” should be carried out 6 to 10 years after first burial.The bones would be removed from the coffin, cleaned dried and placed in a ceramic pot for reburial. The way to put in the pot is also very specific. It basically have to arrange the remains in a sitting position, and anatomically. All the bones from hand and feet, as well as teeth if any, would be removed and put into a bag, before putting inside the pot. All 206 bones have to be picked and stored, or it would affect the reincarnation of the deceased and the families. If the remains due to environmental factors are not entirely skeletonized, then maceration may needed.


Putting cleaned bones in the ceramic pot. (Source: Eastweek Hong Kong)

Famadihana: Dancing with the corpses in Madagascar

On the contrary of the darkened and saddening feel of the “digging the bones” rituals in the Southern Chinese culture, Madagascar’s Famadihana is more festive.


Famadihana. (Source:

Family members would dig up the remains, and dance with them. Their belief is the dead would sometimes travel back to the living world. In the ceremony, “the ancestors can join the living to indulge into the worldly desires” ( It is again a ritual that practices every seven years. Yet, it is considered as a taboo for the younger generation, and the practice is dying out. “We do not believe we can communicate with the dead, but we do  believe the famadihana strengthens our family between the generations,” Jean Jacques Ratoboherison says (Bearak).

In this generation however, these practices are dying, and the idea of exhumation still remains as a taboo. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, due to the constraints of land, most of the people now choose to  cremate the corpse directly and have the ashes stored. In Madagascar, the younger generation consider this practice as a taboo, as well as a black magic. Or, just a sheer waste of money.

But if you look deeply, the whole exhumation, regardless the crime of Moskvin, or these cultural exhumation means more to the families than any others. “Exhumation,” quoting one of the interviewees from Bearak, “is a time when families show they love each other.”

“The voices of the dead are inserted in dreams or riding in the wind.”

                                       For my grandfathers.

References/ Further information:

Anatoly Moskvin and dolls

BBC News. 2011. “Russian ‘grave robber made dolls from girls’ corpses.”

Readhead, Harry. 2014. “Grave robber dug up 29 girls and turned them into human dolls.”

Stewart, Will. 2014. “Russian mother relieves nightmare of seeing dead daughter turned into a doll by Anatoly Moskvin.” MailOnline.


Bearak, Barry. 2010. “Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration.” the New York Times.

My Wander Famadihana, Madagascar: Dancing WIth Corpses and Turning Bones.

“Digging the Bones” (Only Chinese Version)

EastWeek. 2011. [二千仵作 年送四萬人上路]. No. 415, Book A

易經陰陽研究學館. [撿骨注意事項]

Body Farm: Listening to the corpses…

What is it?

Literally, it means a farm with bodies. To be precise, it is a farm with dead bodies either donated by the deceased families, or they are the unclaimed bodies in hospitals, or morgues. If zooming in even more, it is a place that has dead bodies freely lied on the ground, in order to study the decomposition process of the cadaver.

The rate of decomposition depends on some environmental factors, for example weather (heat? cold? hot? warm?), humidity, exposure to direct sun lights, etc. The body farm is thus having bodies situated in different combination of the above mentioned elements as part of the research in order to nail the decomposition rate, which essentially help with identify the postmortem interval (the time between time of death and the time until the police got to the scene), and find out the story behind.

In the States there are several body farms, the most well-known one would be the one begun by Dr. William Bass in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. This facility has dozens of students learning and working inside every year. The other one would be the FreeRanch ran by Texas State University. What makes it really special is that due to the maximized degree of sunlight the facility absorb, the bodies inside the facility usually are being mummified. Most importantly the heat even make the bodies inhospitable for bacterias and insects (flies).

So, what will one see in body farm other than a lot of bodies laying on the ground or in the testing elements?

Pretty much everything really happens after one’s death, but not usually being seen.

Decomposition of dead bodies go through stages. When a person just stopped his/her last heart beat, he will go through 7 stages (in general).

  1. Pallor mortis/ post mortem palness: usually happens right after death because of the lack of blood circulation through out the whole body. The red blood cells then will sink, and caused,
  2. Livor mortis: It can happen from twenty minutes to few hours after death, and continued for few hours. Basically, the red blood cells are pulled by the gravity, where the pressured point (contacting point with another object, be that may a table, a hand etc) will be discolored. The pattern of livor mortis can tell the M.E. about the position of death, and know if the body has been moved.
  3. Algor mortis: drop of body temperature. Theory has it that the body temperature will drop in a constant rate till it matches with the room temperature (the first hour will drop 2°C and thereafter 1°C per hour) By doing a simply mathematics calculation, the M.E. will be able to calculate the number of hours since the heart has stopped.
  4. Rigor mortis: Stiffness of muscles. It usually begins after about three hours, and will become soft again after 24 hours of death.
  5. Putrefaction: It is about the internal breaking down process of the proteins in a decomp body. Not long after the heart stopped, the bacteria in the body (e.g. digestion system) breakdown the cohesion between tissues and organs. Of course, this comes with a very unique odors.
  6. Decomposition: living organisms decomposed after death. Those wounds, or moist areas/ open areas (for example: eyes, mouth, ears) are usually the first place where the decomposition happens, as well as finding the eggs of flies and maggots. Studies found that areas with tattoos are usually decomposed in a slower rate than the areas without any. The gastric acid released in the process of decomposition would acidify the soil (if it is on the ground) at first, but then will nutritious the soil later on. Thus if police or law enforcement bodies found a weird area with heavy plantation out of nowhere, and a homicide happened around that area before, it could be the spot where the body was buried.
  7. Skeletonization: IT is the latest stage of decomposition, in which the soft tissues are already dried or decayed.

Other than situating the bodies in the body farms, researchers sometimes would use pig as a substitute of human body to do certain research, for example to study the bones found in a fire. It is because, pigs have similar gastric bacterias and about the same size as human. Lately, there was a study on using pigs to learn about bodies found in the ocean.

Further Information:

The Huffington Post. Dead Pigs Dumped Into The Ocean… For Science!

Mail Online: The chemistry of DEATH: Watch the gruesome chemical processes that will take place inside your body when you die

National Geographics on Body Farm

Stromberg, Joseph. October 28 2014. The science of human decay Inside the world’s largest body farm