In keeping with our mummy-theme, a few words on adipocere are in order.

With the proper substrate and environment – cold, humid, and lacking oxygen, as might be found in mud or a well-sealed coffin – the fatty tissues in a recently buried corpse will be hydrolyzed by anaerobic bacteria. This hydrolyzation is usually seen in dearly departed who are obese, female, or newborn (i.e., those with extra body fat). Instead of putrefaction, the hydrolyzed soft tissues then form carboxylated sodium salts, with an add’n by-product that we know as glycerin.

In this setting, the glycerin is firm, crumbly, and grey-tan in color – hence its name ‘grave wax’ in the vernacular but ‘adipocere’ in scientific and mortuary circles.

The phenomenon of saponification – the creation of adipocere – was first described in Western print by no less a luminary than Sir Thomas Browne in 1658:

“In a … body ten years buried in a [nearby] 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 [into] large lumps of fat [which were] the consistency of the hardest castile-soap.”

I therefore give you… the soap mummy.

While it is possible that an entire body will saponify, it is more usual that only parts will undergo this chemical conversion. Sometimes the outer ‘shell’ is preserved, while in other cases the internal organs alone undergo saponification. And those parts that saponify can remain intact for centuries. Soap mummies have been unearthed in which stomach contents can still be clearly identified hundreds of years post-mortem.

And people being as they are, it didn’t take long for sensationalism to take hold. Augustus Bozzi Granville, MD, an early 19th century physician, and the first anatomist to conduct an autopsy of an Egyptian mummy before the Royal Academy in London, made candles from adipocere, and then used them to light the anatomic theatre in which he conducted the scientific demonstration.

Needless to say, the event was sold out.

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