Wax Mummies – Fact or Fiction?

by | Mar 4, 2016 | Brandon Fisher FBI Series | 0 comments

WARNING: Don’t read this post if you are squeamish. It contains graphic information. (I have eliminated photos.)

In real life:
Yes, there is such a thing as ‘wax mummies.’

When a body is discomposing it needs oxygen and moisture, but when these levels fall of balance, it can result in the process of saponification resulting in adipocere. Ideally, for this to happen the environment is deprived of oxygen yet contains a high level of moisture.

This process begins within a month and can carry on for centuries. Women, infants, and overweight persons are more likely to be affected.

What is adipocere exactly?

I’ll let Wikipedia explain.
“Adipocere, also known as corpse, grave or mortuary wax, is a wax-like organic substance formed by the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fat in tissue, such as body fat in corpses. In its formation, putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues, internal organs and the face.”*
In layman terms, instead of the body decomposing as it normally would it’s basically preserved due to the transformation of fat through saponification.

Gross fact:
‘Augustus Granville, a physician, writer, and Italian patriot, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, was believed to have made candles from the adipocere of a mummy, using them to light the public lecture he gave to report on the mummy’s dissection.’*

In fiction:
I shared the above with you because it was part of my research for Silent Graves. In this book, one of the victims has adipocere. Below, I share the scene where she is found.

To provide you a lead up to this scene: Hanes is a homicide detective with Prince William County PD (near Dumfries, Virginia), Chow is the lead crime scene technician, and Rideout is the medical examiner.

Without further delay, enjoy, but again not for the squeamish.

Chapter 4

Prince William County, Virginia
Monday, 8:45 p.m.

“I’M PICKING UP ON THE smell and, according to the property owner, the body should be right over—” Detective Hanes cast the flashlight across the field as he walked and stopped just shy of making contact with the corpse. If it had been another second, he would have tripped over the thing. It’s good that he didn’t have any aversions to dead bodies because this one would top the list of gruesome finds.

Jimmy Chow, the lead crime scene technician, came up behind him. As his name suggested, the man was Chinese. He called things how they were, had a wacky sense of humor, and repeatedly proved more loyal than a canine. Chow gestured for a couple of his people to move out over the area. Portable lights were set up and turned on.

Chow pinched his nose and spoke. “Surprised we didn’t pick up on this odor from farther back.”

The smell of death occupied not only the sinuses but seeped into the skin and clung to clothing. This case would have them reeking of it from every pore and breathing it from their lungs. “You’re acting like a newb. Isn’t it worse breathing through your mouth? Come on, you’ve been around—”

“No, not quite this bad.” He dropped his hand, swallowed deeply, and analyzed the body. “She appears to be mid-thirties. You said Stenson thought this was Nina Harris? I quickly looked at her file before coming. She’s the right appearance. At least I can imagine it.”

Unlike Chow, Hanes didn’t need to study her file. Trent and he had shared many beers talking about the missing women from the area.

Hanes infused life into what had simply become a shell, a carcass. He imagined Harris smiling like she had in her wedding photo. He envisioned her eyes rolling back and the sultry expression piercing her lips into a subtle pout. He pictured her on the arm of her husband, being his pride and sense of accomplishment.

“It gives you a point of reference to ID the body,” Chow said.

“But it can also limit perspective. One step at a time.” Hanes circled the body, trying to take in every angle. Despite wafts of decomp tearing up his eyes, he pushed through. “There’s the finger Audrey Phillips took the ring from. God, it is missing flesh.”

“She took the finger with the ring.”

Chow’s rhetorical summation caused Hanes’s belly to perform a flop like it had when he first heard about what Phillips had done.

What was left of the victim’s skin was bloated and appeared to float over the bone mass beneath it, as if one could poke the flesh with a pin and have it hiss out air. Many of her fingernails were gone, and her eyes were missing. The decayed milky slime likely washed away in the river, or had been picked on by fish for food.

The flesh that remained was gray, and in some areas, the skin appeared waxy and held a brownish tinge. The body that would have once been considered beautiful and have garnered the attention of men, now, resembled something that could star in a swamp horror movie.

Animals hadn’t disturbed the remains which Hanes found unbelievable due to the odor she gave off. Maybe even wild creatures had a tolerance threshold.

Around her wrists and ankles there were darkened markings. Hanes bent down next to her left ankle. The stench, being this much closer, stole his breath for a second.

“It looks like she was bound.”

“I was just noticing that myself.” Chow pointed with the tip of a pen to her wrists. “She was definitely held for a period of time to create these impressions.”

“Agree. Also, there are contradictory signs as to the age of the remains. She has flesh in some areas, but even they don’t tell an accurate timeline.”

“Very astute, Detective Hanes.” Hans Rideout, the Medical Examiner, came over to them.

He worked out of the Department of Forensic Science in Richmond. He was in his late forties with a full head of gray hair and a wash of white sideburns. He had a contagious smile, and the lines around his mouth testified that he shared the expression often. His work with the dead never brought him down. Hanes wondered sometimes if the man was clairvoyant due to the clarity with which he saw the victims.

“I’d also say she didn’t die here. This is a secondary crime scene,” Hanes said.

Rideout laughed, jacked his thumb toward Hanes. He spoke to Chow. “That’s why they pay him the big bucks.”

Chow smiled. “I keep trying to tell him.”

The joviality in ME’s eyes narrowed with intensity as he focused on the body. “She has been dead for some time. There is some evidence of adipocere.” He must have sensed their energy and added the explanation. “That’s the result of the chemical process saponification. The body’s fat petrifies into a wax-like substance, kind of like soap.”

Hanes cast a glance at Chow. He was surprised the man held onto his stomach contents given his earlier reaction.

“I wouldn’t suggest exfoliating with her.” Rideout’s sometimes inappropriate sense of humor garnered a smile from Chow. Hanes suspected it helped him fight the urge to vomit.

Rideout continued. “This process results in what you see here.” He pointed to the areas that appeared waxy and brownish gray in color. “The victim appears as if she were in good physical condition. It might be why there isn’t more of it, or it could simply be the length of time to discovery wasn’t significant enough to complete the process over her entire body. This tells me two things immediately. She’s been dead for months, and the body’s spent time in a warm, damp area, deprived of any oxygen.”

Silent Graves is available from the following retailers:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

~~
Further references on the subject:
*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adipocere

http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/grave_wax_and_soap_people_germany_s_not_so_rotten_corpses
If you are curious, search “Adipocere” on Google images to see it for yourself.

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