EDUCATION: Dust to Dust

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Science  10 Sep 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5690, pp. 1543
DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5690.1543e

You probably shouldn't drop by during lunch, but this Web site is worth visiting if you're curious about what happens to the body after death. Reflecting the ghoulish interests of ecologist Richard Major of the Australian Museum in Sydney, Decomposition lets you track the progress of decay with photos and time-lapse video. This piglet (below) has reached the sixth and final stage, with only hair and bones remaining, a point that usually takes 7 to 52 weeks. You can also read profiles of the “corpse fauna”—the waves of flies, moths, and bacteria that munch on and transform the cadaver.

Major disinters a wealth of intriguing factoids about our return to dust. For example, although brain cells usually perish within minutes of our demise, cells in the bones and skin can persist for days. And fat deposits can form “grave wax,” or adipocere, a white substance that slows decay and has been found on 100-year-old corpses.

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