AskDefine | Define cadaver

Dictionary Definition

cadaver n : the dead body of a human being [syn: corpse, stiff, clay, remains]

User Contributed Dictionary





  • GenAm /kəˈdævɚ/, /k@"d

Extensive Definition

A cadaver or corpse is a dead human body. "Cadaver" is normally used as a more formal name for a body being used in medical training or research.

Human decay

The process of the decay of the human body is a subject that needs to be studied to help advance criminal science. Different stages of decomposition can help determine how long a body has been dead.
The first stage is self digestion, also known as autolysis. This happens when the cells break down the body into elements the cells can eat. This creates a liquid that gets between the layers of skin and makes the skin peel off. Also during this stage, flies (when present) start to lay eggs in the openings of the body: eyes, belly button, open wounds, and other orifices. They then get under the skin and start to eat the body. The maggots that find the body in the first stage are about as small as uncooked grains of rice.
The second stage of decomposition is bloating. When we are alive bacteria makes gas from the food we eat. Once a body dies, these bacteria break the body down by feeding off tissue and gas will build up. But the gas cannot escape from a corpse because the small intestine collapses very early on. The bloating usually happens in the abdomen, but can also be seen in the mouth and genitalia, where the most bacteria congregate. The tongue will swell and stick out. This usually happens in about the second week of decomposition. Bloating will keep happening until something gives way. Most of the time it’s the intestines, but on occasion it can be the actual torso, and that usually involves a ripping noise. In the second stage the maggots look like cooked grains of rice: moist, stuck together and larger. The bloat stage usually lasts about a week.
The third stage is putrefaction and decay. It’s the longest process and the last stage. Putrefaction starts during the bloat stage but the effects aren’t obvious until after the bloat stage is over. Putrefaction is when the body breaks down, and tissues and bacteria liquefy. The digestive organs, the brain, and lungs disintegrate first because that’s where the most bacteria are. For about three weeks the organs inside are still identifiable, but after that everything inside turns into the consistency and color of chicken soup. The muscles can be eaten by bacteria, but also be devoured by carnivorous beetles. Under some circumstances the skin is eaten by various things including bacteria and bugs. Otherwise, it just dries out and hardens. Then nothing really wants to eat it because the skin is too tough. Eventually all that is left is the skeleton.


When a corpse is buried in six feet of soil and in a coffin the body will still eventually decompose because not all bacteria need oxygen to survive. Corpses buried in coffins are usually embalmed. First the embalmers clean the face, shave it, fill the eyes with cotton to make them appear more full, put eye caps on to keep the eyes shut, and suture the jaw together to keep it from hanging open. Then they embalm the body. They use the circulatory system to pump liquids into the body’s cells to put the decomposition process on hold. The embalmers take an artery in the neck and pump fluids into the body. This will rehydrate the tissue filling out a gaunt looking face and adding color to the skin. This embalming process will keep the body looking presentable for the funeral and not much longer after that.
Even though the corpse is embalmed, it may look terrifying and disturbing to certain viewers. Embalming is used to preserve the corpse temporarily, but may last for years too. Putting make-up on the corpse will make the body look good for public presentation.
Embalmers sometime are unable to embalm corpse, due to accidents, diseases, and other beyond body changing results. A closed casket funeral can be arranged, if this situation occurs, though in some cases the family simply has the body cremated.

A brief history of cadavers

The methods of preserving cadavers, and their acquisition, have changed over the last 200 years. Criminals who were executed for their crimes were used as the first cadavers. The demand for cadavers increased when the number of criminals being executed decreased. Since corpses were in such high demand, some people decided to steal bodies from graves in order to keep the market supplied. From 1827 to 1828 in Scotland, murders were carried out, so that the bodies could be sold to medical schools for cash. These were known as the West Port murders. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was formed and passed because of the murders. Cadavers used to be used when they were fresh, but that did not always work out, and it was hard to keep them preserved. Preservation was needed in order to carry out classes and lessons about the human body. Glutaraldehyde was the first main chemical used for embalming and preserving the body. Glutaraldehyde leaves a yellow stain in the tissues, which can interfere with observation and research. Formaldehyde is the chemical that is used as the main embalming chemical now. It is a colorless solution that maintains the tissue in its life-like texture and can keep the body well preserved for up to six weeks.

Abusive cadaver use

Human bodies and remains are being sold illegally all over the world without permission from deceased. In India cadavers were being sold to the Medical college run by Muslim Educational Society from the Kozhikode Government Medical College illegally and started a large commotion on the campus. At UCLA Henry Reid and Ernest Nelson were found guilty of harvesting body parts and selling them to other companies from the Willed Body Program. When body parts are donated for organ transplants they are kept under strict regulations, which does not hold true for bodies and parts donated for research and educational purposes. In Leigh Ajan’s case, her mother’s body was sent to the Tulane University for research on kidney and heart diseases. Not long after arriving at Tulane University, she was sent to a brokerage for bodies. This brokerage usually sells the bodies to the U.S. Army to be used for land mine tests. Along with the U.S. Army, bodies and parts have been sold to other companies and people instead of being cremated or buried. In Annie Cheney’s book she writes about bodies being sold from brokers to clients, such as scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and tissue banks. These are just a few cases of abuse, though there may be more out there.

Body snatching over the years

But cadavers have not always been treated with the same respect they are given today. Before modern science cadavers were stolen from graves, relatives, and criminals to provide for science.
Herophilus, the “father of anatomy”, lived in 300 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. He was the first physician to dissect bodies. According to rumor, he dissected live criminals.
The tradition of dissecting criminals was carried up into the eighteenth and nineteenth century when anatomy schools became popular in England and Scotland. At that time, Christians believed in the literal raising from the dead. Because the souls of dissected bodies could not go to heaven, people rarely offered their bodies to science. The only cadavers available were criminals', and anatomists were portrayed as no better than an executioner.
Anatomy schools began to steal bodies from graves. "Grave robbers" were technically people who stole jewelry from the deceased, but stealing the dead body was not a crime. Some anatomy instructors encouraged this "body snatching". Students sometimes paid tuition in corpses or dug up bodies as late night pranks.
Some respected anatomy instructors dug up bodies themselves. The anatomist Thomas Sewell, who later became the personal physician for three U.S. presidents, was convicted in 1818 of digging up a corpse for dissection.
Anatomists would even dissect members of their own family. William Harvey, the man famous for discovering the circulatory system, was so dedicated he dissected his father and sister.
By 1828 anatomists were paying others to do the digging. At that time, London anatomy schools employed ten full time body snatchers and about two hundred part timer workers during the dissection season. This period ran from October to May, when the winter cold slowed down the decomposition of the bodies. A crew of six or seven could dig up about 312 bodies. The average body snatcher made about 1,000 dollars a year, ten times more than the average unskilled laborer of that time period, with summers off.
The poor were most vulnerable, because they could not afford coffins to keep the body snatchers out.
Disposing of the dissected body was difficult, and rumors have appeared about how the anatomist might have managed. They could have buried the cadavers out behind the school. Perhaps they gave the bodies to zoo keepers or fed the bodies to vultures kept specifically for this purpose. One colorful story has the anatomists making soap and candles to give away as gifts.
Stories appeared of people murdering for the money they could make off cadaver sales. Two of the most famous are that of Burke and Hare, and that of Bishop, May, and Williams.
  • Burke and Hare — Burke and Hare ran a boardinghouse. When one of their tenants died, they brought him to Alexander Monro’s anatomy rooms in Edinburgh where they were paid seven pounds for the body. Realizing the possible profit, they supposedly murdered sixteen people over the next nine months and sold their bodies to different anatomists. They were eventually caught. Burke was found guilty, hanged, and publicly dissected. Hare escaped England where he worked as a plasterer’s apprentice until they found out who he was and threw him in a lime pit. He was blinded and begged on the streets for the rest of his life.
  • Bishop, May and Williams — These body snatchers also killed three boys, ages ten, eleven and fourteen years old. The anatomist that they sold the cadavers to was suspicious. To delay their departure the anatomist said he needed to break a fifty pound note. He sent for the police who arrested the men. In Bishop's confession he stated, “I have followed the course of obtaining a lively hood as a body snatcher for twelve years, and have obtained and sold, I think from 500 to 1,000 bodies”
By the 1890s body snatching was less common and by the 20th century it had all but disappeared. Embalming and preservation of cadavers became more advanced and education in medical schools improved. Students no longer had to quickly dissect bodies before they decomposed. These dissections were orderly and complete. Improvements in medical school, including a graded curriculum, meant doctors were better educated. The medical profession received new esteem by diagnosing and healing more people. With that respect came a larger supply of cadavers, making body snatching almost non-existent.


  • Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003.
  • Shultz, Suzanne. Body Snatching The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. 1992.
  • Wright-St. Clair, R.E. Murder For Anatomy. New Zealand Medical Journal 60: 64-69, February 1961.
cadaver in German: Leiche
cadaver in Esperanto: Kadavro
cadaver in French: Cadavre
cadaver in Korean: 시체
cadaver in Indonesian: Jenazah
cadaver in Icelandic: Nár
cadaver in Italian: Cadavere
cadaver in Dutch: Kadaver
cadaver in Dutch Low Saxon: Kedaver
cadaver in Russian: Труп
cadaver in Slovak: Mŕtvola
cadaver in Sundanese: Layon
cadaver in Thai: ศพ

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ashes, body, bones, carcass, carrion, clay, corpse, corpus delicti, crowbait, dead body, dead man, dead person, decedent, dry bones, dust, earth, embalmed corpse, food for worms, late lamented, mortal remains, mummification, mummy, organic remains, relics, reliquiae, remains, skeleton, stiff, tenement of clay, the dead, the deceased, the defunct, the departed, the loved one
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