Morning name: adipocere

An unpleasant topic, one with a high enough Ick Factor that I’m not posting any photos. First, from NOAD2, with the etymology:

a grayish waxy substance formed by the decomposition of soft tissue in dead bodies subjected to moisture. ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from French adipocire, from Latin adeps, adip- ‘fat’ + French cire ‘wax’ (from Latin cera).

(The primary accent is on the first syllable, with a secondary accent on the last.)

A bit more from Wikipedia:

Adipocere …, also known as corpse, grave or mortuary wax, is a wax-like organic substance formed by the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fat in tissue, such as body fat in corpses. In its formation, putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues, internal organs, and the face.

… The transformation of fats into adipocere occurs best in an environment that has high levels of moisture and an absence of oxygen, such as in wet ground or mud at the bottom of a lake or a sealed casket, and it can occur with both embalmed and untreated bodies.

Still more from Wikipedia, on saponification:

Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye. Vegetable oils and animal fats are the main materials that are saponified. These greasy materials, triesters called triglycerides, are mixtures derived from diverse fatty acids… In the traditional one-step process, the triglyceride is treated with a strong base (e.g., lye), which accelerates cleavage of the ester bond and releases the fatty acid salt and glycerol… For soap making, the triglycerides are highly purified, but saponification includes other base hydrolysis of unpurified triglycerides, for example, the conversion of the fat of a corpse into adipocere, often called “grave wax.” This process is more common where the amount of fatty tissue is high, [and] the agents of decomposition are absent or only minutely present.

The process can preserve features of the body very well, over long periods of time, even centuries. But it’s not pretty.

One Response to “Morning name: adipocere”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Since I’m a pathologist, I suppose I should comment. I know about adipocere, of course, but I’ve never seen it. It’s supposed to smell terrible.

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