Dead bodies keep moving for more than a year after death, study

As it turns out, people don’t actually “rest while they’re dead.” In 2019, researchers at the first ‘human body farm’ in Australia noticed that dead bodies keep moving as they decompose. Contrary to popular belief, the position of a found body isn’t necessarily the position it died in. This information could be crucial to future death and homicide investigations.

Study Finds Dead Bodies Keep Moving

The aforementioned ‘body farm’ is called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) and is located in a secret location just outside Sydney. It began in 2016 to study human decomposition in various crime scene situations. 

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“We are currently considering how the facility may be used to study different death investigation scenarios,” said AFTER director Associate Professor Jodie Ward.Such as indoor environments, drowning, fire, or concealments, to further aid criminal and coronial investigations.”

Researcher Alyson Wilson observed the decomposition of one donated corpse. It was an adult male who died due to natural reasons. She used time-lapse cameras filming in half an hour intervals for 17 months. “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,” said Wilson. “One arm went out and then came back in to nearly touching the side of the body again.[1]

Why Did the Body Move?

Wilson had expected movement at the beginning of the decomposing. However, she was surprised to see the dead body keep moving for the remainder of the 17 months. She theorizes that the movement is due to the drying of the ligaments as they shrink and contract. This information could help crime investigations involving found bodies. “This research is very important to help law enforcement to solve crime and it also assists in disaster investigations,” Wilson said. “It’s important for victims and victims’ families, and in a lot of cases it gives the victim a voice to tell their last story.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Maiken Ueland, deputy director of AFTER theorizes that gas build-up and insect activity caused the movement. Knowing this, forensic scientists would be able to more accurately map the body’s position and learn the cause of death. [2]

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Being able to watch the human decomposition process in detail, as it happens, over time in 30-minute intervals will be invaluable in the search for better ways to establish time since death by determining when certain visible markers occur,” Ueland said. “Knowing that body movement can result from the decomposition process rather than scavengers or original placement will be important when it comes to determining what happened, particularly if this movement is much greater than first believed.”

Read: There’s Actually A Whole Civilization Of ‘Mole People’ Living Beneath Las Vegas

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The First Time-Lapse

In Wilson’s previous study, she used time-lapse cameras to deduce whether the equation for a corpse’s decomposition in the northern hemisphere applies to bodies in Australia. This created the first time a video captured the full process of a body decomposing. And yes, the equation is applicable in the southern hemisphere. [3]

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Until we had AFTER, most of the science on how bodies decomposed was based on the northern hemisphere, where the climate is different, the weather is different and even the insects can be different,” she said. However, because of this initial video, she noticed that the dead body keeps moving.

Dr. Xanthe Mallett, a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle, oversaw this new study. “What isn’t known is that the body moves as part of the decomposition process and it’s the first time that it’s been captured, as far as I know,” Mallet said. “I think people will be surprised at just how much movement there was because I was amazed when I saw it, especially how much the arms were moving. It was astounding.” [4]

Sadly, this video was not released due to ethical reasons relating to the donor body.

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This isn’t AFTER’s only new and startling discovery. In 2018, a study explained that in Sydney’s environment, bodies tend to mummify instead of decomposing, in all seasons.

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Previously, if the police had asked me if a set of human remains were found and they were mummified, I would have said that it’s likely that that person was left outside in autumn or winter,” Mallet said. “It opens up the entire year for mummification in the correct circumstances, and it stops us from going down the wrong path [in investigations].” [5]

There’s still much to learn about what happens after death, and this research could help solve crimes and bring solace to the people involved.

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Keep Reading: Scientists Used Human Genes to Make Monkey Brains Bigger, and It Worked

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Sources

  1. Human bodies can move on their own after death, study finds.” Medical News Today. Maria Cohut, Ph.D. September 17, 2019
  2. “Dead Bodies Keep Moving For More Than a Year After Death, Forensic Scientist Finds.Science Alert. Michelle Starr.September 16, 2019
  3. “Evaluating the utility of time-lapse imaging in the estimation of post-mortem interval: An Australian case study.Forensic Science International: Synergy. Alyson Wilson, Stanley Serafin, Dilan Seckiner, Rachel Berry, Xanthé Mallett.  2019
  4. Dead bodies move while decomposing, a significant find for death investigations.ABC. Inga Stünzner. September 12, 2019
  5. Recent advances in forensic anthropology: decomposition research.Forensic Sciences Research. Daniel J. Wescott. August 13, 2018
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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