Ask a Necromancer: Decay Always Wins, by Amanda Downum

When I started my Mortuary Science program in 2019, I immediately wanted to talk about all the amazing things I was learning. For reasons I will never understand, however, not everyone wants to hear about how cool dead bodies are. I first envisioned Ask a Necromancer as a Q and A to pitch to my local SFF convention, as a resource for other writers, or anyone who was curious about death as a process or an industry. Then COVID happened, and that con didn’t. I’m still just as excited to talk about death, though.

Our first question comes from Austin on Twitter: “Given that decedents’ mouths are sewn shut in advance of viewings, how concerned do I really need to be about being bitten if I’m attacked by a zombie?”

Methods vary, but generally speaking when we close mouths we either wire or suture. Wires are deployed with a terrifying device called a needle injector. (Don’t look this up if you have dental nightmares; trust me.) They require the deceased to have solid bone in their mandible and maxilla, or else they pop right back out again. Jostling the decedent’s head while moving or dressing can unseat the wire, if you’re not careful. Depending on how well the wires were anchored, they might slow a zombie down for a few minutes, but not for long.

If a suture is used, it goes through the cartilage in the septum and either under the muscle at the root of the tongue, or around the mandible. A mandibular suture is the sturdiest, and might give a zombie pause. The cartilage is the weak spot in this equation—I don’t know how much pressure it takes to tear through that, but I suspect a determined zombie would manage. The more they decay, the easier it will be.

This all assumes mindless undead; more cogent reanimated corpses could simply untwist the wires or untie the sutures. And of course, not everyone is viewed before burial.

The short answer is: Mouth closure will only buy you a little time. Use it wisely.

Next, Liza asks: “Do some bodies ‘keep’ better than others postmortem? If so, why?”

Absolutely, yes. Many factors, extrinsic and intrinsic, contribute to postmortem state: environment, time before refrigeration, age, illness, etc. Some people sit in the cooler unembalmed for a week and look better than I do today. Some people come in with discoloration and skin slip–desquamation–hours after death. 

The embalmer’s nightmare when it comes to bodies going bad is a charming little pathogen called Clostridium perfringens, aka tissue gas. Tissue gas causes rapid discoloration (usually blue-green “roadmapping” as it spreads), distension, and skin slip. It has a very distinctive smell, and you’ll hear and feel a crackling sensation when you poke infected areas. Regular embalming fluid doesn’t kill it, and if instruments aren’t properly disinfected, it will spread from corpse to corpse. You do not want a needle stick while dealing with tissue gas.

A less nasty but even more common cause of desquamation is edema, or abnormal amounts of intra- or intercellular fluid. Water retention–it happens to most of us at some point during life. Lots of things contribute to edema, including extended bed rest and many medical treatments. I see it frequently in people who were hospitalized for long periods. The distension it causes contributes to skin slip, and once the skin tears, all that fluid leaks out. And leaks. And leaks. The extra fluid inside the body cavities also wants to leak–mostly out of the mouth, nose, and eyes of our unlucky corpse. 

If death were not indignity enough, I find it especially rude to swell someone up like Thunder in Big Trouble in Little China, and then leave them prone to drooling unmentionable fluids while we try to dress and casket them.

Autopsies can be better or worse when it comes to preservation. A body that sits at the ME for weeks before coming to us may not be in great shape, especially if the person wasn’t found immediately after they died. If someone dies quickly, though, and is released promptly, they may turn out well. (I don’t encourage “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” as a lifestyle, but when it comes to embalming, it sometimes works.)

The beauty of the autopsy (we call them posts, short for postmortem examination) is that the internal organs are removed during the examination, and afterwards sequestered. The bacteria in the intestines can’t travel throughout the body encouraging decomposition, and we aren’t left with hidden pockets of blood or other bodily fluids hanging around waiting to start trouble. The worst complication is when the medical examiner severs the facial arteries while removing the tongue. This may cause an embalmer to curse, weep, or pray while trying to get embalming fluid into someone’s face.

I’m told (and experience bears this out) that dieners try to always leave one carotid long so the mortician has something to work with. That’s a lovely sentiment, but with a cranial autopsy, the Circle of Willis–the anastamosis of cerebral arteries–is severed, and we have to inject up both carotids to get fluid to the entire face.

And last, Laura wants to know “…how long bodies are supposed to last. …just long enough for the wake? In hopes that they’ll still look great if exhumed a year later?”

The best answer is: As long as they need to. Mostly, we want them to look good until their services are complete. Embalming is only temporary; decay always wins. Some bodies may indeed be recognizable if exhumed quickly enough, but at that point it’s out of our hands. If someone is going to be viewed and buried or cremated within the week, we may use a less concentrated solution. (This is never an excuse to be sloppy, but if you know that post with the severed facial arteries is going out in a day or two you might stress a bit less.)

Sometimes we know services will be delayed weeks or more, or the person will be shipped out of state or overseas, and so we use a higher index of embalming fluid and make sure it gets in all the nooks and crannies. One of my instructors told us about someone she embalmed who took years to finally travel home for services. Such things are possible with care, luck, and refrigeration.

Ideally, thorough arterial injection would leave someone viewable for weeks or longer. Extra steps may include dressing someone in Unionalls (a plastic onesie that goes underneath their clothes to contain leakage–imagine putting a onesie on an adult-sized toddler who’s just discovered passive resistance), possibly with the addition of paraformaldehyde powder.

I owe a special thanks this issue to the mysterious Lord and Lady Blackwell for their invaluable insight into autopsies. If you have questions for the necromancer, draw a circle, prepare the blue fire…or email, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter. From green burial to death in the time of capitalism, every month we’ll explore fragments of knowledge of the Great Unknown.

Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.

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