In certain circumstances, a body can skeletonize in ten to fourteen days.

There is a magnet on my fridge that my girlfriend bought me. It says, “I like poetry, long walks on the beach and poking dead things with a stick.” It’s so funny to me because it’s true! Many beach walks with my grandfather growing up involved poking dead crabs, jellyfish, and a random seagull or two and when he wasn’t looking putting them in my orange bucket. I also learned and practiced massage from an early age on. Working on muscles and pressure points intrigued me about the inner workings of the human body. I loved the cadaver show that came to San Francisco a few years back because I could visually see what my hands had felt over countless years doing massage.

A few years ago, I read “Stiff” by Mary Roach. I went to my family and told them when I die they were under strict instruction to donate my body to science. Like the cadavers in Mary Roach’s book, I want my earthly remains to be busy and useful post humus albeit in plastic surgery, teaching anatomy or being a crash test dummy. My family just rolled their eyes, shook their heads and muttered, “Only Cat.”

Another great book about dead people recently crossed my path and I am reading it now. “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” by William R. Maples, Ph.D. is the assigned book for the next Down to a Science Book Club get together on Monday, September 13 at Books Inc. I am having a wonderful time reading this book as it a chronicles a brilliant career of a forensic anthropologist in Florida. In starting this book, I thought I knew a lot about forensics but many times I have caught myself very surprised to learn something new about the field and its make-up. Below are a few tidbits from the book that piqued my interest:

– Body decomposition is subjective. A body that is wrapped or in a container will decompose differently that one left out in the air. Temperature, climate, season, how deep a body is buried all affects the rate of decomposition. One instance is given in the book of a grave containing three bodies that had different rates of decomposition because each body was at a different depth – even though they were buried at the same time.

– In certain circumstances, a body can skeletonize in ten to fourteen days.

– Caught and gutted tiger sharks have yielded the highest number of human remains found. However, the corrosive juice in the stomach of a tiger shark can dissolve bone beyond recognition in a short window of time.

– Forensic anthropologists are not medical doctors although they do hold doctorates. Their specialty is the study of the human skeleton and often can find details on human remains that a coroner or medical examiner will overlook.

– “The vibrating Stryker saw used in autopsies [is] a tool whole circular blade does not spin, but instead oscillates back and forth at high speed so that is will not cut skin, but only bone.” (Maples, pg 40).

I am only a quarter of the way through the book; this book is not for those with weak stomachs as the stories are macabre and graphic. However, I am learning so much about this field and finding a new found respect for those that practice it. I am greatly looking forward to finishing the book and engaging in a very lively conversation about its grisly contents at the next book club meeting.

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Fascination with Forensics 1 September,2010Cat



Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division.
Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.

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