Rest in peace is not supposed to be a mere empty platitude. Those that pass away are expected to lie in perfect stillness, no longer party to the twitches and movements associated with the living.
A forensic scientist has learned that this is not the case. In fact, dead bodies can continue to show movement up to twelve months after drawing their final breath.
This was discovered in Australia, at a decomposition research facility. You may have heard these facilities referred to as a body farms, though that’s not a term enjoyed by the scientists that work within such locations.
The corpses in the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (aka AFTER) were filmed with overhead cameras, capturing images every half an hour. Reviewing the footage, it was found that the bodies continued to move. Arms would begin at the sides of the corpse but gradually push themselves outward.
This was no real surprise when the body first started to decompose. We have long known that this was the case. This is often referred to as a death twitch. The continued movement, however, took scientists by surprise.
Why do bodies continue moving after death?
As a body’s ligaments dry out following death, the body decomposes further. This is a form of mummification. Before this discovery, however, the changes in position were mostly undiscovered.
The addition of a time-lapse camera changed everything. Over the course of six months, the camera images were compared to the level of decomposition in the corpse. It was proved beyond doubt that the more the body aged, the more the limbs and extremities would move.
Obviously, when we discuss movement, this comes with certain caveats. We’re not talking about jigging and twitching. Instead, it’s slow and steady movement – so subtle that it goes unnoticed by the naked eye.
It’s also important to note that the body is not moving of its own accord. That requires a conscious series of actions from the brain and nervous system. It’s a biological reaction, based on what is happening inside the body.
This new discovery is not just a matter of curiosity, as fascinating as it is. It will also revolutionize the way that crime scenes are reviewed by law enforcement.
How does this impact the review of dead bodies?
When a corpse is found and identified, every effort will be made to ensure that it is not moved. It’s assumed that a body will reveal the circumstances in which the individual passed away. Essentially, the position of the body is considered the first and most pivotal piece of evidence in a potential homicide or unexplained death.
Armed with this new information, more data may become available to forensic pathologists. Once a time of death has been established based on the body’s level of decomposition, it can be adjudged how much the limbs would have moved. This may shine a whole new light on what actually happened.
Coupling this new understanding with video footage captured by CCTV cameras, for example, could be invaluable. The pose in which a dead body is found is not necessarily the circumstances in which it was left. This could be the key to solving any number of hitherto-unsolved crimes.
What is the process of decomposition?
One thing that must be factored into all of this is the process of decomposition. Within a matter of moments, a dead body begins to decay. This could have an impact on the way the body reshapes itself.
The internal organs are the first part of the body to decompose. Once the heart stops beating, oxygen is no longer pumped around the body. This means that cells can no longer operate at capacity, and they experience a sharp uptake of oxygen. The liver is typically the first organ to be impacted.
Eventually, all organs – including the brain – will follow suit. Fluid will leak from the organs as blood vessels break down. Gravity then starts to play a part, with the blood pooling in the extremities. This is why dead bodies are pale, but often have swollen, discolored hands and feet and patches of blotchy skin.
Once the temperature of the body drops – usually around two hours after death – rigor mortis sets in. This typically occurs from the top of the body first. The eyelids will be frozen open, the jaw will be set, and the neck will stiffen. Rigor mortis then moves down the body, culminating in the feet. Complete rigor mortis usually takes around eight hours.
It was previously believed that rigor mortis ensured that arms and legs would remain locked into position. As we now know, this is not the case. Further studies will be required before this unique occurrence is fully understood, but the discoveries of AFTER have opened scientific minds to the undiscovered world of movement post-death.
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