While corpses won’t keep crawling after you even when they’ve been hacked in half and their intestines are trailing behind them, like that memorable Bicycle Girl scene in The Walking Dead, they don’t always act as dead as they should.
The (un)dead can keep moving around for over a year after death. Australian scientist Alyson Wilson found that unpleasant detail out after following the movements of a corpse that was hanging out at a body farm for 17 months. Wilson realized that human corpses refuse to rest in peace after photographing the zom-body’s movements, flying from Cairns to Sydney to check on it at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) every month. Her subject just couldn’t stay still.
"Once I observed a movement in a previous study, I started researching and couldn't find anywhere in the world that looks at quantifying the movement, so I thought ‘okay, I'm going to do this,’” Wilson, who recently published her findings in Forensic Science International: Synergy, told Agence France-Presse.
By the way, if you don’t know what a body farm is, it’s an isolated stretch of land where bodies (from willing donors) are left exposed to the elements so the process and effects of decay can be studied. Body farms have given scientists new insights into what happens beyond the grave. Postmortem studies are also an important assist to law enforcement when it comes to solving real-life murder mysteries — despite the horror movie implications.
So what supposedly causes this not-quite-dead-yet phenomenon?
“We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out," Wilson explained.
As they mummify, bodies can do things like fling their arms out, which is what happened to the cadaver Wilson monitored. She and her research team were trying to improve how time of death is estimated. It was after using time-lapse cameras that they realized the dead move around on their own. However macabre this might sound, it can really help police get a more accurate reading of the time of death, which can in turn put unsolved cases to rest.
"They'll map a crime scene, they'll map the victim's body position, they'll map any physical evidence which is found, and they can understand the cause of death," she said.
If you watch cold case documentaries, you often see police going over evidence that can possibly point to when exactly the victim died. That evidence can be anything from tissue decomposition, to insect activity, to more untraditional things such as indications of changing seasons. Postmortem movements could fill in a gap when everything else has reached a dead end.
At least there was no proof that corpses are going to act like real zombies and shamble towards the living with a hunger for brains.
(via Agence France-Presse)