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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 6. The Sense of Smell and the Odour of Death

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43878


‘Smell’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘that property of things which affects the olfactory organ, whether agreeably or otherwise’. The ‘smell of death’ is undeniably not agreeable to humans. Indeed, students at a London medical school surveyed over several years, consistently reported that even the anticipation of the ‘smell of death’ was a significant factor in generating increased levels of anxiety and concern prior to entering the anatomy laboratory. Upon entering the lab and participating in human dissection for the first time, students then often comment on how relieved they are by the strong presence of the acrid chemical smell of the embalming fluid used to preserve the human donors. After death, the human body undergoes various chemical and physical processes, modified by biological and environmental factors, resulting in the breakdown of the organic matter of the body into its original elements. These processes result in the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The pungent VOCs originating from decomposing tissue are strong drivers of necrophobic behaviours. The avoidance of dead or injured conspecifics reported in insects, aquatic organisms and small mammals has been related to the idea that such avoidance has been selected for by the increased risks of predation and disease often associated with the presence of the dead. It has also been reported that humans can process the smell of putrescine (a VOC produced by the breakdown of fatty acids in decaying body tissue), which they process as a warning signal that mobilises protective threat management responses. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the interest in VOCs due to their potential use in forensic science, in particular in the location of clandestine burials and the victims of mass disasters and in establishing the post-mortem interval, i.e., how long a body has been dead. This chapter explores the ‘smell of death’ and its application as a tool for the police and disaster workers in cases involving the dead human body, and it discusses how the scent of the deceased itself aids the process of returning the human body to its original elements.

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