Body Decomposition in a Cold Environment
November 14, 2019 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Imagine a log cabin that is unheated but dry inside. The cabin is in a snowy field, and it's January, about -5 to -10ºC, or 15–25ºF. Now put a human corpse in the cabin in a burlap sack. By March, the weather has slowly warmed up to about 5ºC/40ºF. You go into the cabin. Is the sack oozed through? Does the corpse smell yet?

This is for a piece of fiction. I don't need to know how things look inside the bag, which shall remain tied, but I need to know how it'd look/smell/feel if you dragged it across the floor.

Any thoughts or resources appreciated.
posted by Beardman to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What temperature is the corpse when you put it in the cabin?
posted by box at 1:22 PM on November 14, 2019

Dead for four hours. Killed outside in the snow (so, wet), and then transported to the cabin. Wearing winter clothes inside the bag, if that makes any difference.
posted by Beardman at 1:24 PM on November 14, 2019

I suspect that humidity is nearly as, if not more, important than the precise temperature, at least in terms of externally visible decomposition.

If the relative humidity is low enough, meat doesn't rot, it dry ages. In most places I'm familiar with that have four full seasons, however, the humidity would not be low enough to prevent oozing and a terrific stench, at least not if we are talking about something bigger than a few pounds.

Given the description of the weather, whichever outcome is better for your story will be believable, so long as you don't contradict yourself with excessive detail. It could plausibly be anywhere from still frozen solid to nothing but bones and a stain on the floor given what you've said so far. Pick one and try not to contradict yourself. If you prefer it still be frozen, it has been a very cold, very dry winter, the cabin is in a valley/hollow and consequently doesn't get a lot of sun, etc. If you prefer it have very recently turned into revolting goo, maybe the cabin isn't down in a hollow and it has been unusually humid for the past couple of days.

BTW, one of the big disadvantages of having a poorly sealed ramshackle "vacation" home is that finding small animal carcasses at some point is essentially guaranteed. Obviously, I'm extrapolating to larger piles of flesh. :p
posted by wierdo at 1:49 PM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

See Wikipedia for a list of Body Farms. They exist solely for purposes like this— ok not for fiction but for forensic anthropology. But the point is they watch bodies decay at all sorts of conditions, varying temperatures, humidities, containment, etc.

And then they pass on this knowledge so others don’t have to guess; what a world!
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:53 PM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

The winter clothes on the body inside the bag could very well keep the corpse up to a temp where decomposition can happen.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:04 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Conversely if it gets to freeze solid, the clothes will keep it frozen much longer. I tend to agree this could be spun either way and might as well be, unless the point is to get into the science of human decomposition.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:09 PM on November 14, 2019

I don't need to know how things look inside the bag, which shall remain tied, but I need to know how it'd look/smell/feel if you dragged it across the floor.

Exchange the burlap for plastic and you wouldn't need to worry about vermin but in burlap..... ewwww vermin. Or flies. Some of this depends on the passive solar gain. If it's 40 outside it might be warmer inside if it's sunny out and there are windows. Less so if it's super well insulated without a lot of windows, or closed up tight.

I have asked my sister who works in a crime lab and will update if she has additions.
posted by jessamyn at 2:09 PM on November 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

I agree with what has been said before, but adding a couple of data points:

- The Qilakitsoq mummies are an example of cold, dry preservation. Greenland is noted for low humidity, as well as cold temperatures.
- Mummification can occasionally occur in temperate domestic settings; the key factors seem to be relatively rapid skin drying, and exclusion of insects, eg this case.
Therefore, I think the fact that the person was killed outside in the snow militates against mummification due to how wet their clothing will be.

Frozen cadavers remain in good condition for a long time as long as they remain frozen (so 140 year old bodies in permafrost remain in very good condition); any minor decomposition is stalled. In the linked examples, there were some signs of decomposition which would fit with a timescale of bodies being kept somewhere warmer while graves were dug.

So I would say mummification is off the table, but I agree it's really up to you whether you want a well-preserved frozen corpse, or a decomposed one (and being consistent with that and the weather, position of the cabin and so on).
posted by Vortisaur at 2:15 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think the corpse is still pretty fresh and not rotting yet. 40 degrees is meant to be a daytime high, right? So it froze absolutely solid over the winter in January and February. 40 degrees is refrigerator temperature -- imagine having a whole turkey in the freezer until it froze through, and then putting it in the refrigerator during the day and back in the freezer at night alternately for a couple of weeks (say, from whenever the temperature started to get above freezing). It wouldn't be a great way to treat it as food, but I don't think it'd ever defrost completely, let alone start to visibly decompose.

(This is complicated by the fact that my imaginary turkey, and anything dead I've ever dealt with, has been butchered -- eviscerated and exsanguinated. Assuming the murderer didn't do anything weird like field-dressing the body like a deer, this corpse is going to have more in the way of body fluids than I'm thinking, which means that while I still don't think it'll be rotting, it's plausibly going to be leaking some. I don't know what blood does in a frozen/chilled corpse at all.)
posted by LizardBreath at 2:47 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sister adds: "not just temperature, as others noted. humidity plays a huge part, as does the pre-dead condition of the deceased. for example, fat bodies start to decompose faster. wounds speed up decomposition. and ingested drugs can either speed up or hinder. age of the person at death also matters. babies decompose slower, weirdly."
posted by jessamyn at 3:13 PM on November 14, 2019

As a third scenario: If the cabin was in bear country and the corpse was getting pungent, early waking bears might have broken into the cabin and disturbed the corpse.
posted by monotreme at 3:26 PM on November 14, 2019

sorry, one more fyi: most importantly, bodies that freeze then thaw decompose in reverse. usually bodies putrefy from the inside out. frozen then thawed bodies generally
start from the outside and then work their way in. so you wouldn’t necessarily have a bloated belly or a fluid purge, but you would have a rotten corpse from the outside and it would smell.
posted by jessamyn at 3:53 PM on November 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's been my experience that opportunistic omnivorous rodents are apt to find ways into cabins and their calorie-filled sacks, especially during winters.
posted by glibhamdreck at 5:39 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

One other aspect to consider is manner of death. For instance something that caused a non violent death could result in very little smell if the temps stayed below 40F on the body. However say a stabbing or worse a gut shot that opened the entail / bowels would easily contaminate the body with some pretty nasty microorganisms and lead to putrification even at refrigeration temps. As someone that has had to clean even a recently gut shot deer I can tell you that a gut shot body starts to stink almost immediately if the viscera is even remotely open. I agree with others though that you could probably describe this as any state between dried meat to serious decomposition and liquifaction depending on the specifics you chose. A lung or heart knifed victim would freeze fairly fresh in just a few hours and lose moisture at the surface throughout the winter. Could result in a mummified exterior with moister fresh underneath. A gut shot person that had thawed for the same 2 weeks could be expressing a large amount of foul fluid and breaking down. So honestly writers choice.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 10:24 AM on November 15, 2019

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