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Corpse wax: Strange phenomenon sees decaying dead bodies produce mystery substance

If you’ve never heard of ‘corpse wax’ or ‘grave wax’, then consider this a lesson in some of the weird and wonderful things that our bodies can do once we’ve bitten the dust.

The first discovery of this certain phenomenon was in 1786 at The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris.

The cemetery was in the process of being closed and relocated to what would eventually become the famous Paris Catacombs.

As the bodies were exhumed from the moisture filled earth of the former cemetery, workers noticed that the corpses were covered in a grey, waxy substance.

It was then that the substance was named ‘Adipocere’ (now commonly known as ‘corpse wax’), derived from the word ‘adipo’ meaning fat and ‘cere’ meaning wax.

The startling substance is of an off-white colour and often begins with an odour of ammonia.

Adipocere, or ‘corpse wax’ as it’s widely referred to, preserves and depletes a corpse of moisture.

Saponification (the creation of soap) is the transformation of the fat and tissues of a corpse chemically, on a molecular level.

In order for this bizarre process to take place, a corpse generally needs to be in a place that is warm, wet, anaerobic (devoid of oxygen), with the presence of bacterial enzymes.

Once Adipocere is formed and it ages, it hardens and therefore preserves the body.

Following its initial discovery in 1786 in Paris, corpses were found to have faced the same fate 1875 in Philadelphia.

As part of improvements to the city, bodies in a cemetery were exhumed that featured Adipocere. This was the discovery of the famous ‘soap mummies’.

There have been a number of cases of ‘soap mummies’
Essentially, water had leaked into the caskets and the fats in the bodies had transformed to be soapy and flaky, with the Adipocere preserving them against decay.

One of the most famous ‘soap mummies’ was found floating in Lake Brienz in Switzerland in 1996, a following investigation revealed that the man is likely to have drowned in the lake in the 1700s no less.

His body is thought to have sunk to the bottom before being covered in sediment, where his fats converted to Adipocere.

Bogs or underwater environments are ideal for Adipocere to form, as are the right soil conditions with the presence of moisture and lack of oxygen. It makes no difference if there is a coffin or not.

A lack of oxygen and presence of moisture can lead to Adipocere
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In some cases, a thick, black, clay like substance will cover Adipocere. This forms when Adipocere is exposed to alternating anaerobic and aerobic environments, meaning that Adipocere degrades and fatty acids spontaneously oxidise.

Despite corpses being able to be preserved for thousands of years thanks to this phenomenon, there are cases of it being a problem of the present day.

It was only in 2008 when German cemeteries were previously burying bodies in soil with high clay content and unknowingly producing saponified corpses.

When they began recycling the graves, instead of decomposed remains, they were greeted with almost intact ‘soap mummies’, leading them to undertake an expensive reconditioning project.