How does a body look after two decades in a freezer?
June 18, 2012 7:05 AM   Subscribe

CSI-filter: I'm writing a short story about the Mob and about a body that's been in a basement freezer for 20 years. I have some questions for anyone who might be in a position to know about these things.

Essentially, the body has just been pulled out of the freezer after 20 years and left in an alleyway. So it's been thawing for a couple hours.

These are my questions:

(a) Is there condensation on the skin? Outside temperature is pretty cool. It's late Sept. in NYC. So, 19 degrees Celcius/66 degrees Farenheit.

(b) How dessicated is the skin? After 20 years, is there any shrinkage? I feel like the corpse might get gaunt after all that time, but I'm probably wrong.

(c) It'll take time for the corpse to fully thaw before an autopsy can take place, but would the coroner set up heat lamps or anything like that to speed the thawing?

(d) Can the freezing process "hide" certain causes of death? Say the person was strangled by hand.

(e) How will the coroner eventually assess time of death? Is this even possible?
posted by Sully to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Starting at the beginning:

a. While it can depend on the exact conditions of where the body now is you would most likely see condensation on the skin as it thaws, and also water from any surface ice crystals...even if it were say wrapped in plastic, you would still get some surface ice crystals over that amount of time...think freezer burn in your own home freezer.

b. Again it depends on exactly how the body was stored...if it was just tossed into a freezer as is there could be some shrinkage of the skin over that time but not too much.

c. They could try and use heat lamps and what not to speed up thawing but likely would just let it thaw naturally unless there was some reason for a rush. The Office of Chief Medical Examiner who deal with bodies NYC usually have a backlog and a 20 year old corpse is going to be further back in the line then a homicide from 2 days ago.

d. Freezing probably wouldn't "hide" too many causes of death...well other then freezing to death I guess. Manual strangulation say will leave signs on the inside of the neck and throat which will still be visible at autopsy. If anything the cold could help to preserve more evidence then anything...again depending how soon after death the body was frozen.

e. I guess the question here would be time of death from when? Freezing will stop most all the usual markers use to determine time of death. In a case like that they might be able to narrow down how long it was after death before the body was frozen, but after 20 or so years investigators will be going more on getting a positive ID and finding out when the last time anyone saw them alive the "time of death" may be expressed more along the lines of "Summer of 1992" then 6:02 pm on June 3, 1992.
posted by Captain_Science at 7:22 AM on June 18, 2012

If you're trying for plausible realism, you should note that anyone with a 20-year-old chest freezer will know that anything left in a freezer that long will be totally frosted in and will require chipping out or other hard work to remove - this ain't just pulling a box of pizza rolls you put in last week - this corpse will be encased in white ice.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ohh....good point BigLankyBastard....I totally forgot to add that point. Also there was the big North East blackout in 2003, not to mention other power interruptions over a 20 year period that would effect the condition of the body.
posted by Captain_Science at 7:46 AM on June 18, 2012

Depending on the freezer and how it was wrapped, it may not be completely frozen over. I have in the bottom of my chest freezer many individually packaged cuts of meat (perhaps 30 lbs in total) that will be celebrating their 10th anniversary of freezer life in September. They have survived multiday blackouts and still look fine, with no ice buildup around them at all.

(No, I'm not going to eat them, and it's a long story).
posted by Sukey Says at 7:56 AM on June 18, 2012

I would expect that the freezer would have gone through multiple freeze-thaw cycles over the course of 20 years, due to power outages and/or being shut down for repairs. So the body would have decayed somewhat during the thaw cycles.

Also was this a frostless freezer or has someone been defrosting it regularly? Because frostless freezers are not good for long-term storage of meat - they basically do a quick defrost that can thaw the outer layer of the meat. So if it's a frostless freezer the skin would have been through many many freeze-thaw cycles and would probably be looking pretty freezer-burned.

If the body was somehow cryovac-ed or something like that (that's a big cryovac!), water loss and freezer burn would be greatly reduced.

I'm no coroner, but I would let the body thaw in the fridge for the same reason I would let a steak thaw in the fridge - less rotting/breakdown of tissues.

Also, 20 years is an impressive amount of time for a chest freezer to last without needing repairs. So you probably want to explain that.
posted by mskyle at 8:02 AM on June 18, 2012

A 50-year frozen corpse figures prominently in Archer Mayor's The Marble Mask. Mayor is known to sweat the small stuff, so I imagine his details are more right than wrong. As I recall, the body was described as appearing mummy-like, though obviously the time scale is longer than yours. I'll see if I can find the relevant text.
posted by mumkin at 8:11 AM on June 18, 2012

(d) Can the freezing process "hide" certain causes of death? Say the person was strangled by hand.

Perhaps not.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:09 AM on June 18, 2012

Hmm. In Mayor's text, the medical examiner says:
"The body itself has thawed out,” she explained further, “although some of the organs are still a little hard. We’re trying to speed things up by flushing them with warm water, but I don’t want to move too quickly.”
The ME’s patient was anything but traditional—his skin was red fading to a leathery brown, instead of the usual sickly yellow, his eyes were strangely sunken and dry, and his nose, ears, and fingers were dark, as if dipped in soot.
to your b), the body's ears and fingertips are described as being shriveled and mummy-like.
posted by mumkin at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here is a google books excerpt that talks about decomposition in bodies that have been frozen.

I really want to read this story.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:06 PM on June 20, 2012

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