The mystery around what exactly happens to your body after you die is one researchers have been grappling with for years, but a new study has now shed some surprising light, offering hope for future studies on death.
Researchers at Sydney-based ‘human body farm’ the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) discovered that bodies actually continue to move as they decompose.
Fitting time-lapse cameras to film the decomposition of a donor body over 17 months – across 30-minute intervals – researcher Alyson Wilson told the ABC she noticed significant movement in the arms in particular.
“What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body,” she told the news outlet, adding that the movement continued for the full 17 months. Wilson reportedly believes one explanation could be a shrinking and contracting movement, which happens when the body’s ligaments dry out.
Meanwhile Dr Maiken Ueland, deputy director of AFTER, claimed there was likely movement due to the build-up of gas in the body in the early to mid-stages of decomposition – as well as some insect activity playing a role. It essentially means the research could help establish a more accurate time since death.
However, while they expected small movements, Dr Xanthe Mallet, who supervised the study, said it wasn’t the case and described the amount of movement in the arms as “astounding”.
The body farm was originally set up to carry out research on donor bodies to help aid authorities following crimes – by replicating crime scene scenarios.
AFTER director associate professor Jodie Ward told Starts at 60 they currently have 70 donor bodies and added: “We are currently considering how the facility may be used to study different death investigation scenarios such as indoor environments, drowning, fire, or concealments, to further aid criminal and coronial investigations.”
It’s not the first major finding from AFTER into what happens to bodies following death and last year they reportedly found that human remains were mummifying more than decomposing in the Australian Southern Hemisphere environment. Wilson revealed she had previously thought it happened more in autumn and winter, but after seeing it happening throughout all four seasons, it changed her view and advice entirely.
Death is a topic many people don’t like to discuss or think about too much, but it’s one many others are hugely intrigued about. And now, with options to donate your body to science – as is the case with AFTER – or simply choose to be cremated or buried, more people are shying away from tradition.
According to IBISWorld recently, cremation has been an increasingly popular option over the past five years, with approximately two-thirds of deceased individuals in Australia being cremated. The expense and lack of suitable land for traditional burials has added barriers, leading individuals down the path of cremation and aiding the rise of green funerals, which have an emphasis on reducing the environmental impact of a burial.
“Traditional burial services can have a significant effect on the environment with embalmed bodies and traditional coffins taking prolonged periods to break down,” IBISWorld Senior Industry Analyst Tom Miller explained. “Additionally, cremation has significant requirements and has been linked with particulate and harmful mercury emissions into the atmosphere (caused by incinerating fillings in teeth).”
According to IBISWorld, innovations regarding green burials have increased in popularity over the past five years, including services at green burial or bushland sites; the use of biodegradable coffins made of cardboard, wicker or a simple shroud; avoiding the use of headstones; and using shallower graves that don’t require heavy earthmoving equipment. Some firms have also experimented with alternatives to energy-intensive cremation, such as water cremation.