Scientists have found what dead bodies tend to smell like before the bacteria gets in – and guess what, they don’t smell rank to start with.
Like the heady aroma of freshly cut grass that everyone associates with picnics, cricket and sunshine – could also be the smell of death.
Researchers have analysed the gases given off by decomposing bodies and made some surprising discoveries.
One is that in the earlier stages, before the grubs and bacteria get to work, flesh starts to digest itself, releasing a compound called hexanal that has a cut grass smell.
“A body smells pretty rank, but there are changes over time with different stages of decomposition,” said Researcher Dr Anna Williams, from the University of Huddersfield. “In the first few days the body is going through a process of autolysis, which is basically the self-digestion of cells.
“When the bacteria get involved that’s when it gets really smelly.”
Another component, indole, reeks “very strongly” of faeces – yet can be found in tiny amounts in “heady, rich perfumes”, she added.
A third death compound, trimethylamine, produces a powerful fishy pong, while others smell of paint thinner and nail varnish remover.
To carry out the study the scientists allowed pig cadavers to rot in boxes, some of which were filled with water.
A gas chromatography machine was used to analyse the vapours produced.
The point of the research is to improve the training of “cadaver dogs” whose speciality is sniffing out dead bodies.
“There’s a lot of mystery surrounding what cadaver dogs respond to,” said Dr Williams, speaking at the British Science Festival at the University of Bradford. “We want to have a better idea of how they are working and how they can be trained.
“Maybe they only respond at particular stages of the process, and maybe we can be more scientific in the way that we train them.”