Ask a Necromancer: A Brief Anabasis, by Amanda Downum

This past weekend (mid-October for you living readers—time flows differently in the underworld) I attended Austin’s ArmadilloCon, where I experienced something very rare for necromancers: a live audience. It was lovely to be among the quick for a change, and I was delighted with how many curious souls turned up to ask questions. I’d like to recap a few of those questions in greater detail for you, dear readers.

  • So I should put it in my will…

This comes up frequently when discussing final disposition. If you have strong feelings about what you would like to happen—to your body, at least—after you die, discuss it with your loved ones. But do not put it in your will: wills are frequently not read until after funeral services have taken place. When you die, your legal next of kin will have the right of disposition for your remains. The order is generally spouse, adult children, parents, and then other relatives. If you have separated from your spouse but not officially divorced, they will still have legal precedent. If you are estranged from your family, or believe they won’t honor your wishes, you may appoint an agent to control disposition of remains. This is not power of attorney.

I am not a lawyer and can’t walk you through this process, but I encourage you to research laws and legal forms in your place of residence if this is a concern of yours. If you’re financially comfortable doing so, you can also make pre-need arrangements so a funeral provider will have all your wishes in a contract on file.

  • What is alkaline hydrolysis?

I brought this up as an alternative means of disposition, and then blanked on useful details. Alkaline hydrolysis, aka aquamation, liquid cremation, and various other terms, uses a mixture of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide which is heated to around 160°C/320°F, pressurized to prevent boiling. Over several hours this mixture will reduce a body to liquid and bone. The bones will then be pulverized like cremated remains and rendered into “ash.” The liquid contains amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap. It’s nontoxic and can be disposed of via sewage systems. I don’t know how these facilities handle the disposal of liquid remains—I’ve heard at least one anecdote about a person watering their garden with a dead relative.

Like any new method in a traditional field, the process is controversial and faces opposition, mostly because humans are prone to maligning what they don’t understand. Most states have yet to pass laws regarding alkaline hydrolysis, and fewer still have facilities available. It’s considered a “green” alternative to traditional burial or cremation, but cost and logistics may make it impractical for many people. States where alkaline hydrolysis is currently available include Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, and Oregon.

  • Do certain body systems break down first?

Yes, absolutely. The correct order may be a question on the National Board Exam for Funeral Services, even. So of course I answered it slightly incorrectly. When referring to body compounds, the correct order is: carbohydrates, soft proteins, fats, hard proteins (connective tissue and cartilage), bones.

In this case, the word carbohydrates refers to stored glycogen, which breaks down via fermentation. The final products of this breakdown are carbon dioxide and water. The process doesn’t alter the overall alkaline environment in a dead body and doesn’t produce any of the unpleasant smells associated with decomposition.

Protein decomposition is called putrefaction. During putrefaction, amino acids break down into amines, including ptomaines such as cadaverine and putrescine. These ptomaines cause the distinctive smell of rot. They also contribute to the odors of living fluids such as urine and semen. Sex and death—hopefully—don’t smell the same, but there are some similar notes, and yes, sometimes this is noticeable.

The other answer, which is probably what the querent intended but what I didn’t get into, is the order in which viscera (internal organs) break down. That order, roughly simplified, is:

  1. The lining of the trachea and larynx; or, if present, an infant brain or gravid uterus;
  2. The stomach, intestines, spleen, and liver;
  3. An adult brain;
  4. The heart, lungs, kidneys, and bladder;
  5. Large blood vessels or a nongravid uterus.

Because those large blood vessels remain intact well into the decomposition process, embalmers are sometimes called upon to inject a body that even zombies wouldn’t pick for their dodgeball team. It’s our job to honor the family’s wishes as best as we can, but when a corpse has reached the green-and-sloughing stage, I do beseech you to consider cremation.

  • When does rigor mortis set in, how long does it last, and how do you get rid of it?

Rigor mortis, or postmortem rigidity, is generally said to set in around two to four hours after death, peak around twelve hours, and dissipate after forty-eight hours, assuming a corpse is left at ambient temperature. My personal experience is that the duration of rigor varies dramatically, based on a number of factors, including muscular build and temperature. Because my clients are kept in refrigeration (between 38° and 44°F, ideally), rigor tends to last longer.

Rigor begins in the muscles of the eyelids, jaw, and neck, which contributes to the difficulty I’ve previously mentioned when it comes to closing eyes and mouths. The muscle tension of rigor can also put pressure on blood vessels, which affects the distribution of embalming fluid. Embalmers break rigor by flexing limbs and massaging muscle tissue. We massage toward the point of drainage—usually the jugular vein—pushing settled blood out and making room for fluid.

That massage is one of the little intimacies that immediately struck me the first time I set foot in the prep room. It has a purely practical purpose, but there’s a kindness in it too.

Rigor mortis also has a burlier cousin—cadaveric spasm, aka death grip. Cadaveric spasm is a stronger stiffening of the muscles associated with violent deaths or deaths involving extreme emotion or struggle. It’s usually found in the muscles of the hands and forearms. This stiffening is much harder to break than that of rigor. I see it most in bodies that come from the medical examiner, unsurprisingly. Because these were more often younger, healthier people, breaking cadaveric spasm can be an arm-wrestling match with someone who has thirty pounds of muscle on me. These are the rowdy corpses who like to toss instruments around and grab me or smack me while I’m trying to embalm them.

  • Do you practice necromancy?

I refer to myself as an agnostic pagan and a witch. Caring for the dead provides a personal fulfillment that I consider spiritual. However, I do not technically practice divination through spirits of the dead. Or, in the modern application of the term, I don’t raise or control the dead. Yet. I frequently ask my clients for things—usually to stop knocking my instruments on the floor, or to just sit up and put their own pants on. I have yet to have anyone listen, but I haven’t given up hope.

  • Who would win in a fight, you or Caitlin Doughty?

Though I sometimes volubly disagree with Doughty’s opinions on traditional funeral services and embalming, I am a huge fan of her writing and her ethos, and she’s been an inspiration to me for years. Also, she’s taller than I am and a couple years younger, so I’m going to assume she’d have the edge in a fight. Age may bring cunning, but also habitual back pain.

If you have questions for the necromancer, don’t be afraid! Look into a black mirror by the light of black candle…or use the submission form at From the practicality of home funerals to fun facts about corpses, no subject is too silly or too serious.

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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