New Morbid Terminology: Grave Wax

Grave Wax Clings to a Skull, via True Forensics

Grave wax is a wax-like organic substance that appears as crumbly and waxy material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids that appears in certain graves. The color of the wax depends on the color of the body fat; white or brown body fat produces adipocere that is grayish white or tan. The substance is also known as corpse or mortuary wax, and scientifically is called adipocere. The transformation of fats into adipocere occurs best in the absence of oxygen in a cold and humid environment, 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. It was described by Sir Thomas Browne in his discourse Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658): 

In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: wherof part remaineth with us.
The process can also lead to the entire body turning into adipocere under certain moist and anaerobic bacterial conditions, known as saponification. Saponification is defined as the conversion of fatty acids into soap through hydrolysis with alcohol creating glycerol.
In 1875 , two soap mummies were discovered in Philadelphia.  Both individuals had reportedly died of Yellow Fever in 1792 and were 60 year olds from the family Ellenbogen. However further research into the individuals in 1987 revealed that Yellow Fever was not present during that time period, nor were any death records found for individuals named Ellenbogen. Radiographic analysis of the female body revealed shroud pins embedded within the soap that date to 1824. The soap lady, based on these radiographs was determined to be less than 40 years old. Radiographs were finally taken of the soap man in 1994, revealing he was approximately 40 to 50 years old, and also buried no earlier than 1824 due to the presence of shroud pins created in that year. The dating is further supported by the presence of his knee high socks- amazingly preserved. Radiographic comparison between the two individuals showed that the saponification didn’t occur the same in both: the soap man retained his internal organs while the soap lady was hydrolyzed all the way through.

Swedish Soap Corpse found in 2011, via Live Science

In Sweden in 2011, a 300 year old headless corpse was found floating in the river. At first it was thought to be a fairly recent death by the presence of blue and white fleshy material, but further examination revealed that this was the preserved adipocere. The ‘soap’ around the body, while preserving many of the soft organs, does obscure the actual identification of age, sex and pathology. Radiology was needed for the analysis of the Philadelphia mummies, but in this Swedish case they simply removed portions of the wax to reveal the pelvic bones. This showed that the body belonged to a adult male. The wax preserved the heart, which had turned blue due to minerals in the ground, and the intestines, which contained cherry pits.

Whether its called grave wax or adipocere, the process can preserve portions of the deceased and is found in the graves. It does take a number of weeks, and often months for this process to work, and the conditions must be perfect for it. It occurs more often than thought, but often only leads to small amounts of preserved fatty tissue, rather than the full body turning into a soap-like substance.
Works Cited
Meyers 2011. Soap Man and Lady Revisited. Bones Don’t Lie.
Parry 2011. Goo of death helps solve mystery of the headless corpse. Live Science.

12 responses to “New Morbid Terminology: Grave Wax

  1. Thanks for posting!

    It is the same chemical process that lies behind the occasional preservation of brain tissue in old skulls. An example is this one: Sonia O’Connor et al. “Exceptional preservation of a prehistoric human brain from Heslington, Yorkshire, UK” You can find a free copy here (plus some other articles on adipocere):

    • Great comment- brain tissue was one of the first ways that grave wax was recognized. It does lead to some interesting studies. Thanks for the link to the article on the topic!

  2. Browne’s one scientific discovery is little acknowledged. He also anticipates forensics in his observation –

    It is no impossible Physiognomy to conjecture at fleshy appendices; and after what shape the muscles and carnous parts might hang in their full consistences. A full spread Cariola shews a well-shaped horse behind, handsome formed sculls, give some analogy of fleshy resemblance. A critical view of bones makes a good distinction of sexes. Even colour is not beyond conjecture; since it is hard to be deceived in the distinction of Negro’s sculls.

  3. I’ve excavated a few historic period graves from desert environments that were just full of grave wax once the coffin remnants were removed. It was rather revolting to uncover, to be honest…. 🙂

  4. Fascinating post about something I have not really considered….I shall be following up on grave wax, undoubtably…

  5. Great Blog,
    Just in time for Halloween I give you this.

    Read about, The Lady in the Lake, from Crescent Lake WA. As I remember it, a female murder victim was disposed of in Crescent Lake whose waters exhibit unusual properties. The water is gin clear, 150+ feet of visibility and supposedly mineralized springs flow into it from below. She reappeared many years later still recognizable in a fully saponified form resulting in the murder conviction of her husband who had previously told everyone she had moved away. The proverbial giant bar of soap ghost.

  6. Pingback: Stages of a dead body | Investigating Crimes·

  7. Pingback: Stages of Death | Investigating Crimes·

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