Late Stage Decomposition of Embalmed Cadavers

Taphonomy from Cementerio Sur de Madrid




Human decomposition, embalming, late post-mortem changes, late-stage decomposition, forensic anthropology, taphonomy


Decomposition is a natural process that begins approximately four minutes after death and continues until the body is degraded to simpler biochemical components which are gradually recycled back to the environment. This process is dependent on extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Embalming is a chemical preservation technique that aims to preserve the external appearance of the body in good condition for an indeterminate period. In Spain, there is a lack of experimental studies carried out to analyse the variables that affect decomposition in embalmed bodies, therefore, in accordance with the conclusions reached by previous authors, it is hypothesised that embalmed bodies show quantifiable characteristics during the late stage decomposition which distinguish them from control, unembalmed, cadavers. An anthropological and statistical analysis was performed on 14 individuals from Cementerio Sur de Madrid exhumed after ten years according to the Mortuary Health Law of the Autonomous Region of Madrid. The preliminary results obtained showed that there is a qualitative and statistically significant relationship between the variables evaluated, being the presence or absence of soft tissue the most notable difference. The mortuary or thanatopraxy treatments performed before the burial and the microenvironmental conditions of the burial positively influence the soft tissue preservation on embalmed bodies. These results contribute to the understanding about the decomposition rate of an embalmed cadavers in cemeteries, and the related extrinsic variables.

Author Biographies

Pilar Mata Tutor, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense

Pilar Mata Tutor is a doctoral researcher based at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense, specializing in the analysis of sharp force trauma on cremated remains. Pilar studied biology in Madrid and spent two years working in the field of molecular biology in Germany before doing the Forensic Anthropology MSc in Dundee and returning to Spain.

Catherine Villoria Rojas, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense

Catherine Villoria Rojas is a doctoral researcher based at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense, specializing in physical anthropology and non-metric traits of the human skeleton. Catherine is a medical doctor and spent 5 years before starting her PhD obtaining the postgraduate diploma in Legal and Forensic Medicine.

María Benito Sánchez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense

María Benito Sánchez is a Professor of Forensic Anthropology and head of the Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense. She leads a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, and medical doctors to research human decomposition, conflict archaeology, age and sex estimation, and peri-mortem trauma in cremated remains, among other forensic areas. Her research involves age estimation in the living. This article is part of a larger project called “Tafonomía del Cementerio Sur de Madrid [Taphonomy of Madrid’s Cementerio Sur]” which studies the late-stage decomposition of the human body in cemetery settings.


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How to Cite

Mata Tutor, Pilar, Catherine Villoria Rojas, and María Benito Sánchez. 2021. “Late Stage Decomposition of Embalmed Cadavers: Taphonomy from Cementerio Sur De Madrid”. Forensic Archaeology, Anthropology and Ecology 2 (1):49–60.