“The Body in the Concrete”- Concrete Casket 101.

So last time, I expressed my concern on how the Hong Kong Police and Firemen had mistreated the crucial trace evidence, namely the concrete casket. And I also opposed their methodology. Some of the readers thought that police should be more experienced on handling these cases than me, and also thought that the law enforcement units had made this judgment after chains of thorough thinking.

I supposed I am not in a good position to comment further on how their approach was when they were at the scene. After all, I was not at the crime scene in person. Also, readers state that that was indeed the raw differences between theories, archaeology and the reality. I am only wishing to use the following space to replied to three of the main questions raised by the readers. I have also cited the Los Angeles Medical Examiners case report, in hope of the M.E. would be able to shed some lights on the questions the readers made from their study and research.

Question 1: The size of the concrete casket is too huge! May be they are not scanned because the law enforcement was not able to transfer them for scanning?

If you ever watched any crime shows on TV (of course, Bones is a good example. Everyone will yell “back to the lab!”), you will see they are always able to transfer whichever evidence they found back to the lab before further analyzing. Reality, not so much. This is how Ground Penetrating Radar comes into play. In archaeology, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is used to detect and reflect any buried artifacts, monuments, archaeological sites. It is especially handy when archaeologists are about to look for hidden burial sites and buried remains. GPR allows noninvasive examination, and very helpful for experts and scientists to learn about the structure of the hidden architectures and bodies. Furthermore, size of a GPR is only about the size of a vacuum. Some companies even invented the GSSI Mini, which is about the size of a laptop for carrying scientists to have easy access in the field. All GPR and GSSI Mini come with a monitor, and very easy to connect to the laptop. That said, it is easy to document digitally the detected images. One may use slightly more time on using the GPR before stepping or unfold the crime scene, yet save the team and resources from doing extra and additional steps and procedures in the later investigation. In this case, that would be the suspicious broken palm, posture of the body, etc.

Question 2: It was mandatory to crack the concrete casket open, as the body was decomposing already.

News and police report claimed that the concrete casket was dried by the time of discovery. Yet, concrete would not dry but only cure and hardened. The hardening and curing of concrete, in other words, does not come from the evaporation of water from the chemical composition of the concrete. Rather the water molecules have transformed, merged and bonded together with the concrete particles as part of their chemical structure. An experiment pointed out that the mass of concrete before hardening/ curing is about the same with after [1]. The only slight difference between the mass was from the evaporation of the water on the concrete surface that with no cover. Last time, I have also mentioned that concrete is relatively porous. When cement hardens, it means that the water molecules and air molecules have filled in all those pores. This type filling makes concrete looks strong but indeed not. That said, it is relatively soft inside, while the outside of the concrete looks hard.

And for the body that was covered by the concrete, the decomposition of it liquefies from inside to outside, and all the decomposition was triggered by the enzymes in muscles. During the hardening process of the concrete, since it is a exothermic reaction (i.e. it releases heat in the whole process), the interior of the concrete casket would reach 175F in the first few days, which results an acceleration in the decomposition rate. After curing, the concrete becomes a good insulator that blocked the air and heat to reach the body, and thus successfully decrease the rate of decomposition again.

During the stage of decomposition, body liquids (any liquid in the body, you name it :)) would leak out of the body. Normally, as in general when a body is exposed to air, atmospheric air would help evaporate liquids and water. However, when a body like the one in this case is being buried in a concrete casket, all the fluid is trapped in the casket, and at the end turned the soft tissues into a mush. At the end, fluids would leak outside the casket, or concrete casket. This is not only something visual but also would give a strong odor. Evenly so, it does not mean an invasive act should be taken to the casket. Keep in mind that bodies starts breaking down the moment the heart stopped beating.

Question 3: Readers think that using merely textbook archaeology, i.e. using brush in the act, has not thoroughly considered the scenario at scene.

To be honest, this is some attitude that forensic scientists should have and maintain all along. In the forensic field, a lot of the tools we use are indeed very creative. For instance, you would find ladles on the autopsy table to scoop out fluid (for example inflammatory fluids in lungs) during autopsy; also would find those big stock pots in decomp bodies autopsy room for forensic anthropologists to do maceration. All these kitchenware is used with one and foremost premise: will not affect the quality of the collected evidences, or would not contemning evidences.

Los Angeles Medical Examiner Office claimed that there were only 5 cases of concrete casket located, till 2008, in the past 18 years in a report. They also stated in the report that, though cement and concrete affected the calculation or estimation of accurate postmortem interval, at the sam time they welly preserved all trace evidences [2]. In these 5 recorded cases, medical examiners were taken things slow, and excavate the bodies layer by layer in order to estimate the cause of death and time of death. Among all, LA medical examiners also indicated the frequent application of metal detectors and radiography in order to pinpoint the posture of bodes, and location. Sledgehammer and chisel are only implemented in a very much later stage, or only when they are sure it would not damage the body.

Back to the discussion, should we use heavy tools like sledgehammer and chisel, or only brush? Both. The foremost premise here is to not damaging the evidence. Only use heavy tools when the remains inside are well-documented. Also, the methodology with chisel should be go horizontally instead of vertically in order to reveal the context of the casket and the body.

Sad but true, concrete casket or related research is not commonly seen and discussed in the academia. These caskets can only open when all the conditions and situations are well-documented. In delicate crime scene like this one, officials should prioritize the preservation of crime scene in front of investigation just yet.



[1] Lesson 5: So, You Think Concrete Dries Out? (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2016, from

Toms, C., Rogers, C. B., & Sathyavagiswaran, L. (2008).
Investigation of Homicides Interred in Concrete—The Los Angeles
Experience. J Forensic Sci Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(1), 203-207.

“The Body in the Concrete”- Dig or Not Dig, This Is the Question.

On March 30, 2016, Hong Kong local media, Apple Daily reported about a homicide that with a concrete-made casket. The concrete was found in one apartment in one of the neighborhood in Hong Kong, Tsuen Wan. The concrete casket was 1m x 1m x 0.5m and covered with a wooden box, and was placed in the center of the living room. Other than the concrete-wood casket, there were a lot of air-fresheners placed in the living room too. Police and firemen arrived the scene, and found the strong odor is originated from the wooden box in the living room. They decided to crack the casket, and handled the body to the M.E. right out of the casket. From the angle of forensic anthropology, and forensic archaeology, I would like to point out that the methodology police and firemen used to handle the casket is not appropriate.

Recap: Forensic anthropology is the combination of osteology and physical anthropology that applied in the legal context. Usually, forensic anthroplogists would only deal with human remains in advanced decomposition, skeletonization, human bone fragments, burnt remains, or other remains that have difficult time to give a positive identification from soft tissues.

Back to the case, first and foremost, the concrete casket. Concrete is the cured cement. Cement is a relatively alkaline material and very porous in itself. Concrete casket is very effective in insulating the body from contacting the air, which in turn, slows down the reproductive rate of bacteria within the body, as well as decreases the probability for flies laying eggs on the body. For, soft tissues decomposition mostly because the bacteria within digested our body and the occurrences of maggots. These two teeny tiny organisms enjoy the decomposition feast the most! Also, because the concrete could insulate the contact between the air and the body, the decomposition rate in general is slower in the concrete casket than exposing it in the air. That said, if the correct evidence collection methodologies used, a lot of physical, biological and trace evidences would be too preserved in the concrete casket. Therefore, without examine the concrete casket and use chisel or sledgehammer to break the concrete would be one serious wrong move, and here are the three main reasons:

1. Cracking the concrete casket is an invasive act. Once the concrete is cracked and broken, no one could recover it back to the original context. A fluoroscopic examination should be done and evaluated before any invasive act. With today’s technology, it would be easy and efficient to scan the whole concrete block before cracking it open. That way would allow the M.E. and corresponding law enforcement agents have a better understanding with the posture, number of bodies, and position of remains. Also, some of the remains might liquidfy or oxidize once contacted with air because of some chemicals they exposed to before concealed in the concrete. Straightly cracking it open, simply ignored this possibility.

2. Another risk of cracking open the concrete casket directly would be: what if there are more than one body? Although according to the intel and the missing person report, there was only one missing individual, and also because of this, police mainly focuses on looking for this particular person. Yet, if there are really more than one set of remains, directly using a chisel or sledgehammer without scanning the concrete in advance, would possibly damage the remains inside. The concrete casket, like the apartment, is a crime scene. One of the main missions for forensic anthropologist to determine first and foremost, would be the minimum number of individuals, or MNI. Anything in and out of the concrete casket is part of the evidences. Local news report stated that the right hand is cracked and broken because of the cement. Little did we know, if it was broken because of the cracking of casket, and thus resulted this postmortem trauma.

3. Direct usage of sledgehammer and chisel is not recommended. In forensic archaeology, the most useful tools would be those of carpenters–brushes, or even tooth brush. Only after fully documented the conditions of the casket would consider to crack the concrete. And would not use any chisel when getting close to the remains. That way, we could make sure the context of the body is well-preserved and complete-documented. Though this way is slow (could not deny this), yet can protect the remains and preserve the maximum amount of evidences, from pollen to hair to adipocere (aka grave wax).

Though body disposal in concrete is not a common case, it is definitely not the first. When handling body disposal like the abovementioned case, it is very important to keep in mind that speed of cracking the case is the least concern, as you have this fragile and one-time crime scene needed to handle and evaluate in optimum condition.

Forensics Daily #11: Forensic Countermeasures

Q: what is the definition of forensic countermeasures? This phrase sounds fancy!

A: this phrase in fact is pretty self-explanatory. First, you have to understand what “countermeasure” means. “Countermeasure” means an action, an incident, or a process that prevent the normal forensic protocols. It threatens the integrity of the forensic works.

Take an outdoor crime scene as an example. The forensic countermeasure could be the unpredictable rain (though it is a natural one), which would watch away unprotected evidence. It also could be scavenging animals, trespassed people, and so forth. As long as the acts that threatens the validity of forensic evidences that are not yet protected by the chain of evidences, regardless if it is natural or artificial, it is already a sort of forensic countermeasures.

Simple concept but with fancy saying, isn’t it?

Tattoos: Forensic Considerations and Human Identification Pt.2

So we talked about how useful the inks are on getting a positive human identification (Click here to read about it before you continue with the following..)

This week we will go on and talk about inks from different period, or even removed would also help positive identification, which is particularly helpful in human identification in disasters. And for this part, the ink used for tattooing is the crux of the whole study.

Back in 19th Century, the ink manufactured for tattooing is obtained from burning a liter of oil soot. And 300g of the oil was combined with fresh urine (!). (If you are shocked, you are not alone). Though the manufacturing of the ink looks as raw and rough as it is, it has successfully been kept till today, and the collected specimen are now exhibiting in Romania. 

Tattoo ink penetrates as deep as dermis of human skin (though sometimes varies the thickness of the skin too). It is especially useful when the epidermis (outermost layer) of skin is destroyed in fire for instance. Tattoos are usually divided into two types, “amateur” and “professional.” It depends on depth the ink was injected. “Amateur” tattoo would have less densely packed pigment when compared with the professional ones. Before the application of medical lasers, surgical removal is the only option to remove tattoos. Since amateur tattoos have various depth of ink injection, it is more difficult to remove amateur tattoos than professional tattoos. Yet, it is the otherwise with the application of medical laser because of the density of ink.

Tattoo can also use to identify gang members, religious belief and some previous engagement or convictions. It is because tattoos can show the memberships of groups and gangs, when a person left the group, they may have the tattoo removed. Evenly so, removed tattoos could be traced with X-rays, infrared and lasers.

The theory behind using lasers to remove tattoo is to heat up the pigment particles, have them mover away from the dermal cells. “Pigments …migrates away from the tattoo site due to skin cells dividing or dying. Therefore, the depth of the ink in the dermis may also potentially be used to age a tattoo, another useful tool in human identification.” (Clarkson and Birch) That is to say, in any postmortem circumstances, movement of ink pigment could be observed in lymph nodes, which indicates the presence of tattoos even though it is invisible on the epidermis.

X-ray can also use to indicate not only the existence of tattoo, but also the time frame of the tattoos inked. How so?  “The older inks would be more visible than modern inks. This expectation is based on the known metal content in older tattoos ink.” (Clarkson and Birch) The metal component would reflect itself on the X-ray if detected.Yet, it was banned by the EU that the new types of ink should be metal free. Thus, by taking radiography images, it could possibly identify the time period, namely before or after the EU restriction for the individual to get the tattoos done.  

The alternative to “remove” the tattoo is by doing “cover-up” tattoo. With the help of infrared, it can show the proximity of color deposit onto the skin. Studies show that ink would deposit further into the dermis over time. This way, the latent tattoos are visible under a particular wavelength, and thus enhance the visualization for the forensic context.

See Part 1 Here.


Clarkson, Helen. and Wendy Birch. 2013. “Tattoos and Human Identification: Investigation into the Use of X-Ray and Infrared Radiation in the Visualization of Tattoos.” J Forensic Sci, September 2013, 58(5).

Miller, Daniel. 2014. “The human canvasses: Grisly exhibition of framed tattooed skin samples gathered by forensic scientist goes on display.” MailOnline.

Karsai, S., G. Krieger, and C Raulin. 2009. “Tattoo Removal by Non-Professionals–Medical and Forensic Considerations.” JEADV.

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.7: Forensic Photography

So basically, all the parts about forensic Anthropology/ pathology are done. Yet, in a medical examination department, other types of forensics are also as important.

This time, less talk about forensic photography, or known as taking crime scene photos.

Again, being a crime drama maniac like me, I recall in one of the NCIS episode of the Tony and Ziva era (not sure which season though), Tony sometimes used the camera that is for taking crime scene photos to take snapshots of Ziva. Do you think it is appropriate to do that in reality? Can they just delete the useless ones from the memory card?


We met the chair/ chief forensic photography of the department during our stay (he is super nice!) and he gave us a series of lecture on taking forensics and crime scene photos. In order to make the photos legit to use on court, there are series of protocols and formats the photographer has to follow. These are all indeed tried to re-present the scene and some of the items from the scene that would help families and victims to find out what happened. For instance:

  • Photographer has to take photos perpendicular to the object.
  • He/she can use a ladder if needed to
  • Photos should be taken with a grey, or white background (the best); never use red background as it is too irritating and mixed up with the color of blood.
  • If it is from autopsy—immediate from the body, cleaned background is required, e.g. with clean towel, cloth, and gloves
  • Scale should be placed nicely
  • Should not have too much reflective surface/ gloss on the photo, thus the angle of using a flash is really crucial.

Photoshop is basically a trend these days, someone might just go and edit the photos and use that for court evidence. The forensic photographer says that there is a series of code hidden in each photo that allows experts like them to check if the photos have been altered. Also, the photo should take in RAW format is also because of this reason.

Also, can the photographer take whatever photos they want with the camera, and delete the unwanted ones? Or, could the photographers delete any mistaken photos (for example, those with wrong format etc.)? The forensic photographer says no to both scenarios. He explained that the attorneys and prosecutor may ask why the names of the photos are not in sequences. And photographer has to show them those are because technical mistakes. Mistaken photos should store in a file indicating the technical problems are found in these photos. For the second question, the forensic photographer explains that photographers could not use the camera for taking forensic photos to take any pictures that are not case related, such as selfies. So the situation from NCIS could not happen in real life.

There is another kind of forensic photography that is to take photos with a high speed camera. The high speed camera is really amazing. It helps demonstrate the progression and the travel of the bullet, as well as the how the force of the projectile hit the target. That said, it means we have to go to the gun range, which happens there is one in the facility.


Yup, that’s me putting the paly-doh on death row! And he is the forensic photographer, Lenny 🙂


This is the work of a high speed camera from another group. So cool, right?

The more obstacles the bullet has to get through, the less would the last obstacle would break. Though it is simple physics on energy transmission, seeing it by my own eyes makes it totally different. Our group played with balloon and play-doh. The projectile has enough energy to break the play-doh into pieces. For the balloon, because it is “fragile”, even reduced amount of energy would be able to get it burst. I felt bad for the play-doh splashed on the black background in the studio.

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

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

Crisis in Forensic Sciences, or Not?

Forensics is trusted by the authorities on convicting criminals for more than a century. Fingerprints, blood splatters, DNA, bit marks, shoe impressions, etc. are solid physical evidences that can associate a person with the crime, crime scene, or even put him on death row. Yet, forensic sciences are under strict scrutiny in the recent years. A lot of misjudgments are convicted because of wrong forensics.

The father back to the crime scene with Detective Stabler, the DA and the independent investigator/ professor for reenactment. (Source: Screen shot from Torch, Law & Order Season 11)

 If you are a crime drama fan like me, you may have watched every episode of Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS, to name a few. Yet, when talking about forensic scrutiny, Torch, an episode from Law & Order Season 11 particularly rings a bell.

 Let me walk you through the storyline:

The episode begins with an apartment caught a fire in the middle of the night, and two young girls died in a burning house. They were left in the house by their father, not because he did not try to save them. He did, yet the fire was too vigorous. He failed and burnt his hand. The (SENIOR, as he claimed himself) fire marshal concluded the fire was set by the father with incorrect assumptions he made. These assumptions were disarmed by an independent investigator/ professor, together with a real reenactment of the scenario—burning the DA’s house!

This episode alerts the public the danger of forensic sciences, or the danger of junk sciences. In fact, it does not only happen in drama but happens frequently in the reality.

In the documentary Forensics in Trial (watch here), it criticizes and investigates the uniqueness of fingerprints, the science-ness of bite marks. Jessica Gabel, a law scholar, commented that “forensic bit mark evidence is more art than science;” a lot of interpretation is needed indeed. In this case, should we still trust forensic sciences (are we, the forensics lovers living in our little fantasy)?

Both DNA and autopsy are hard sciences. The former is chemistry, and the latter is biology/ human anatomy. Are these two secure enough to convict crimes? Autopsy, for instance, may not be as accurate as it is. In the recent Michael Brown case, the autopsy is problematic. Shawn Parcells, the man that assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy has his credentials questioned. He presented himself, according to Mail Online, as a pathologist even though he was not.

DNA, a well-known crime conviction technique, plays a critical role in cases such as the famous OJ Simpson case. Even the DNA evidence ties OJ Simpson to the crime scene, it took the jury only four hours to decide he is not guilty. Why? Because the plaintiff could not prove the evidences are beyond reasonable doubt in order to convict OJ Simpson. Part of the doubts is the legitimacy of evidence. The evidences had lost the chain of custody; police were accused for contaminating the crime scene, and plated evidence to frame Simpson. These all come together to show that even though the person was guilty, once the evidence did not speak the exact same story, no crime will be convicted.

By the same token, in 2012 a forensic chemist named Annie Dookhan had falsified thousands of drug tests. She had also mixed up evidence samples, fabricating results so as to be the most productive chemist in the lab, and lied about credentials.

All these examples just to illustrated one thing: it is not the science is false but the interpretation, and the person who interpreted the evidences are fractured. Quoting attorney McShane from Dookhan case, saying “a forensic scientist in a courtroom is that of a neutral scientists, not as part of the prosecution team…it’s the duty of a toxicologist to focus on the chemistry and the pharmacology not to concentrate on the conviction.”

Like any crime drama, people working in forensics and law enforcement do have a sense of justice, and what does it mean to each of them. One should not forget that being a good scientist, or even just law enforcement agent, professionalism and open-minded thinking are both critical.

The coolness of forensics is the accuracy of conviction. Mistaking one step would make killers walk free, while sending innocents to jails, even on death row.


The OJ Simpson Case

Spargo, Chris. 2014. “The mystery of Shawn Parcells: How forensics ‘expert’ without a medical degree assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy amid claims he stole a body and lost a brain.” Mail Online.

Trager, Rebecca. 2014. “Hard Questions After Litany Of Forensic Failures At US Labs.” Chemistry World.

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.

Tik-Tok: Estimating the time has elapsed since the death…

We are all dead.

We have exhaled the last breath. Our heart has stopped pumping blood for the brain and the body. We died.

Unfortunately, no one was with us when that moment came until now. Will the coroner and the medical examiner know when that particular moment happened? Yes.

How? They have the interval detectives.

Upon the discovery of human remains, the key question asked usually was the time of death. To answer that question, M.E. has to find out the postmortem interval (PMI), which is the amount of time has elapsed since the death.

Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Photo by Shutterstock

There are ways to do so. Recalling the decomposition schedule we discussed last time, in the first few hours, a lot of changes would happen: livor mortis (settling blood, algor mortis (cooling of body temp) and rigor mortis (stiffness). These methods usually able to accurately calculate the first, at most 24 hours interval. By the time the body starts decomposing, these would not work.

A lot of Medical Examiner would choose to use the drop of body temperature as a tool to get PMI. Average body (living body) temperature is about 37⁰C or 98.6⁰F. Under normal circumstances, at normal room temperature, the body would drop 1.5⁰C in the first hour after death, and between 1.5 and 1⁰C every hour after that, and stopped until it reached the room temperature. By comparing and calculating, it would allow the M.E. find the time of death. Yet, it does not work at best when the body starts decomposing.

A number of factors will affect the rate of the temperature drop. A naked body will be at a faster rate than a body that is wrapped like a gift. Also, body of lesser weight will enjoy the privilege of faster temperature drop too! If the body has been dead for days, looking into the past weather reports would help too.

Seems like everything does not work as well when the decomposition begins. Correct! But we are so lucky that the mother nature gives us our little death detectives– insects!

The application of insects or bugs science to investigation about crimes is called forensic entomology. Entomology, means the study of insects. The live and dead insects found at the site of crime can tell many things, from the crime scene, the length of time the body had been there, the time since death, and even if the victim being drugged.

After the rigor mortis is over, putrefaction begins. It is about the internal breaking down of the proteins in a decomp body. Acid like the gastric juice (Hydrochloric acid) starts eating the internal organ, releases gases (ammonia, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane). They sometimes bloats the body cavity. As the decomposition goes, the odor would get stronger. That’s the odor cadaver dogs rely on to look for a body. Lately, an international research team measured the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from pig carcasses, they identified a cocktail of several families of molecules. The found that the combination and quantities of the VOCs change as the body go through stages of decomposition. It worked as the “odor fingerprint” of decomp.

Insects then, particularly flies, begin feeding on remains. Studies show that flies are attracted by the released gas, and have a feast around the moist and opened tissues/ areas: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, vagina, penis, anus. If there are wounds (antemortem and perimortem), they would invite themselves into these areas too. As they continue to enjoy the feast, they reproduce. The deposit eggs in and around the remains, and starts a cycle of arthropod activity. The schedule is as follows (Bass 1977):

  • First Day:  Egg masses of insects (may look like white sawdust); veins seen through skin may be blue or dark green; body fluid may be present around nose and mouth.
  • First Week: Maggots are active on the face; bones around eyes and nose may be exposed; beetles may appear; skin and hair may slip from the body; remains emanate odor of decay; abdomen may be bloated; molds may begin appear on the skin; animals may be active. VOCs or Volatile fatty acids may killed the vegetation in area around the body.
  • First Month: Maggot activity less, beetles more common; no more bloating. Bones will be expose if the body is shaded. Skin may be leathery if its exposed to sunlight, which protects the maggots from the sun. Mammalian carnivores may appear and remove body parts; molds can be found; adipocere (Grave Wax) may be present.
  • First Year: Skeleton fully exposed and bleached; moss and/or green algae may be growing on shaded bones. rodent gnawing; animals may nest in the skull.
  • First decade: Exfoliation of cortical bone may be present; longitudinal cracks may occur in long bones exposed to sun; roots of plants may be growing in or through bones.

“You are what you eat. So do the insects.”

As you may realize by now, the insects are entirely fed on the body. Entomologist by studying the living habit or the life cycle of the insects may be able to tell if the insects have intake some alternative materials from the body, such as necrotic. Likewise, insects can help clean the bones by having them eating up the soft tissue. These are the most convenient way to do if maceration is not on the top of your list.

Other than forensic entomology, forensic botany (the application of plant science to investigation about crimes) is also useful to map out the time elapsed since death. You may recognize in the above schedule, the plant would die out after the first week. The acids from the internal body would kill all the nutrients, acidify the soil, and make the soil is not suitable for plantation. However, later on, when the whole body started breaking down, the whole body is indeed some sort of organic nutrients. The decomposition of body thus can restore the nutrients into the acidify soil. Plants will grow nice and strong at the spot. Thus, abnormal plantation patterns may reflect the placement of dead body too. Plus, plants and roots would grow around the bones (as support sometimes).

A new finding from Forensic Biologist from Switzerland found that the density of testate amoebas in the soil underneath the cadavers help date older corps. The study finds that not one single living amoeba found be found under the cadavers at 22 and 33 days after placement, while only by day 64 the amoebas start to rebound in the soil under the pig. Yet, the level of amoebas did not restore to its normal level (according to the control) even after a year.


Bass, W.M. (1997). Outdoor decomposition rates in Tennessee. In: Halgund, W.D., Sorg, M.H., eds. Forensic Taphonomy. New York: CRC Press.

Byers, Steven N.. (2011). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, pp. 94-111.

Frazer, Jennifer. (2014). “A Surprising Time-of-Death Tool.” Scientific American. September 16, 2014.

Knowles, Ruth. (2014). “Changing Smell of Corpses Measures Time of Death.” Scientific American. June 26, 2014.

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

The medical examiner office begins a normal day with a morning case meeting. The meeting will basically “talk” (you will know why it is quoted later) about the cases they received since yesterday afternoon to that morning.

We went to the morning case meeting every day. Honestly, I was expecting a more structured meeting instead of a casual one like this. Morning case meeting begins with a summary of number of cases, and certain basic profile of the cases. For example, name of the deceased, ancestry, age, where was the last where-about. If the deceased was from a crime scene, the M.E. at the scene and the death investigator are also listed on the sheet. Of course, each case summary comes with a summary of the preliminary conditions of the expired body.

The M.E. will pick the cases they are going to work on later that morning for autopsies. The death investigator, who chaired the meeting (literally everyday) had already prepared all the related case files on the conference table. Once the doctor has picked the case(s), they will start referring to the pathological histories in order to get hold of the details of deceased’s life. And the meeting ends when all the cases are claimed. Doctors will leave when they want to. It’s quite different from what we encounter on TV, at least in my interned facility.

Autopsy usually begins 30 mins to an hour (depends on if the body is ready or arrived) after the meeting. And this particular day I am talking below was very busy as they have 8 cases came in and to take care of.

Out of the eight, we observed the one with a pregnant woman and an unborn child.

First thing they did in the autopsy was to confirm if the lady was really pregnant, as “she was obese and pregnant” was stated in the description in the case. They first tried to locate her uterus, examined the conditions of it, and confirmed she was pregnant.

The autopsy was normal in terms the conditions of organs, and the conditions of the unborn child. The M.E. claims that the more normal the deceased body is, the higher the chance will be getting a positive toxic screening. That is to say, it is more likely to be a homicide, or sometimes suicide.

The autopsy of the unborn child strikes me. When the doctor just opened up the lady’s uterus, and brought out the placenta, together with the “water”, it hits me. The baby looked so matured—you can see her features on both faces and limbs are all developed. I know to be an expert that works with death a lot would definitely come across this kind of tragic event, and definitely have to learn to deal with it. It does not mean that I cannot handle it, but I did question myself continuously who would do that to a mother-to- be and an innocent baby. This simple question explains the need of forensic specialists around the globe, as they can help provide closure to families. Of course, it would not be possible to provide closures for every family like justice is always restored in TV criminal dramas but definitely try to do so for as many families as they can.

After finished with the mother’s autopsy, we were discussing should we do the autopsy to the baby as well. The responsible M.E. said usually they do not if there is no signs showing the baby may be got harmed. But later, they decided to go with a green light.

Opening up a developing fetus was not easy! The whole body is still pretty soft and fragile. The body development of a fetus is fascinating. Seeing all the organs develop and grow from such a small size to a fully developed size amuses me. The most amusing part is the softness of the brain of the fetus. It is super soft to an extent that is nearly liquefied when they cut the brain open. The fully developed adult brain does not solidify much. It is still soft but at least it held its shape.

Previous Episodes:


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

Forensics and Race: Why Anthropologists Need to Identify It ?

Forensic Anthropologist begins the job by establishing biological profile after has identified the remains are human. The items in the biological profile include sex, age, ancestry, and stature. These all come down to a hope on making a positive identification from police’s missing person poll.

Among the four items in the biological profile, ancestry is the most controversial. Ancestry here usually refers to the classification of the deceased as either Black, White, or Asian.  Anthropologists, especially biological/ physical anthropologist denies the idea that race is biological varied. Yet, we are required, or even has to be good at identifying it. This dilemma has been circulating in the academia for decades, or centuries. Lately, Dr. Robert Wald Sussman has published a book entitled The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, revisited and popularized the debate and discussion on the myth of race again.

Let’s not make the following discuss too much an academic jargon, but a general discussion on race with the help of criminal anthropology, and forensic sciences/ forensic anthropology.

Cesare Lombroso from Italy took Darwinism (the theory of evolution), hinted with a horrifying twist and established a lists of criminal traits, which for some reasons implemented for years. He believes people are born into crime.


Shapes of ear help decide people are law breaker or not, according to Lombroso (Crime and Justice Blog)

He even claims that “This is not merely an idea, but a revolution.” (which is true to certain extents). In 1911’s Criminal Man summarized by Lombroso’s daughter, list of qualities include:

  • Projection of lower face and jaws (prognathism)- mostly found in negros
  • Oblique eyelids- mostly found in Asian/ Mongolian characteristics
  • A nose with a tip like an isolated peak from the wollen nostrils
  • Tattoos are resemble to the hieroglyphics used by ancient men.
  • Missing of earlobe- common to apes
  • A hooked nose
  • Prolongation of the coccyx, aka the tailbone

Cesare Lombroso (from Wikipedia)

Basically, Lombroso sees animals as criminals. He sees them as violent and prone to murder. One type of criminal is known as “the Woman”. He sees criminal as a form of degeneration of normal mankind.

Lombroso adapted his “brilliant” theory from the social Darwinism, which is the brutal application of natural selection to human society to boost the “strong” and disgrace the “weak”. His long list of traits and attributes are helping the stigmatization.

By no means of comparing the following two, but the dilemma of establishing race/ ancestry in the processes of developing the biological profile is in fact sharing the similar grounds. Why we crumbled down Lombroso’s theory but not doing the same to the idea of race?

First, race is a social and culture concept, which till today a lot of people still surprised with it. Quoting Szokan, Dr. Sussman argues in his book race was emerged as a social entity, to as a justification for slavery and imperialism. The brutal adaptation of Social Darwinism mentioned earlier produce the base for the Nazis’ theory of Aryan supremacy and genocide (Szokan 2014).

Admit that, racism is in our daily lives. Be that may where you live, where you go to school, what is your profession, who you interact with, how people interact with you. These all affected by (internal) racism. Even the ordered structure we all born into is still racist. Using the biological variations to classify each other like physical anthropologists do would reinforce the idea that races were “developed using assumptions about genetic relationships and distributions among different human population.”

It is important to remember that forensic anthropologists’ racial identification concept have little to do with or even none to the biological race. Human is one race. In 1942, a student of Franz Boas suggested that there are only clines but no races. Racial traits are factors that distributed independently depend upon environmental and behavioral factors, but not a single genetic factor (Sussman 2014). Variations here refer to physical traits such as skin color. These physical traits not only controlled by one single genes but multiple of them.


The skulls of the three general ancestries: (a) White, (b) Asian, © Black. Byers, Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Unlike Lombroso, forensic anthropology using race identification not because they believe in one kind of people is superior than the others, or people look different because of the race they belong to. Neither of these is true. Forensic Anthropologist using race as a “pronoun” for the biological traits in terms of a cultural labeling system. This pronoun does not necessarily carry the historic baggage since the development of the Race and the social or historical meaning behind. Forensic anthropologist are really good at matching, but not answering any taxonomic questions of races.  Thus, more and more forensic anthropologists prefer to use the word “ancestry” instead of “race” in order to get rid of the mythical sense of biological race difference.

We all live under the Racism umbrella. Dr. Sussman writes in the Conclusion that “Biologically, Homo Sapiens is on race,…It is only by recognizing this fact and understanding its history that we might one day have a society in which all people are treated with dignity, equality and kindness regardless of their ethnicity or culture.” (Sussman 2014)


Sauer, Norman J. 1992. “Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If Races Don’t Exist, Why Are Forensic Anthropologists So Good At Identifying Them?” Soc. Sci. Med, 34(2): 107-111.

Simon, Matt. 2014. “Fantastically Wrong: The Scientist Who Seriously Believed Criminals Were Part Ape.” 12 November, 2014.

Sussman, Robert Wald. 2014. “Why Are We Divide by Race When There Is No Such Thing?” Newsweek. 8 November, 2014.

Szokan, Nancy. 2014. “Racial Divide: It’s A Social Concept, Not A Scientific One.” The Washington Post. 4 November, 2014.