The Introvert and the Odor Mortis

Because being a writer means following the advice of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and feeding your head.

Submitted for your approval: the details of one head-feeding session….

I am a highly distracted gardener and will not give tender young plants the attention they deserve. My efforts are better spent making compost—better for the plants (because they get good, rich earth from this) and better for the planet (because I reduce the waste that would otherwise end up in landfills and not decay with all due speed). I am almost as good at composting as I am at fixing toilets, my highly celebrated, lame super power. The compost I make is derived from kitchen scraps, mostly fruit and vegetable waste, but also egg shells, coffee and tea grounds, some garden waste, and other relatively inoffensive materials that don’t smell too badly as they decompose.

Decomposition has recently become a frequently used word in my vocabulary. This is mainly because Zackie-O, the introverted Plott hound, is expanding her search and rescue training from live finds to human remains detection. Training involves teaching her to alert using a recall-refind—she needs to come to me and tell me by barking that she has found something and then she needs to show me where it is located.

Unlike trailing, where Zackie-O is given the scent of an individual she needs to find and then works on-lead to follow that scent, human remains detection has her working off-lead to home in on the scent of decomposition. And boy, does she like running off lead. The general advice is that the handler should keep up with the dog and watch the dog’s body language for signs of interest, indicating that she’s picking up on scent somewhere in the vicinity. Good luck with that. Plott hounds are fast and nothing short of an Olympic sprinter is going to keep up with her. This is why training the recall-refind is necessary—it makes her come back and communicate to me that I need to follow her to the source of that scent.

The scent of decomposition is comprised of about 480 volatile organic compounds that are released in a complex mixture as bacteria act on a body. The exact composition of the gases released changes as decay progresses and also varies based on the composition and interactions of the bacterial population in and around the body, the climate, and (to a lesser degree) the genetic make-up and diet of the deceased. Training cadaver dogs to recognize this odor mortis is a real commitment and is a complex endeavor.

To add to the complexity, Washington state has recently passed a bill permitting composting of human remains. This makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of environmental stewardship, since it eliminates from the funerary process the carbon footprint generated by cremation, as well as the toxic chemicals used for embalming. At the end of 30 days, the result of the body composting process is a cubic yard of soil, which the families can use to create memorial gardens and/or donate to conservation groups in the Puget Sound region. The same rules that apply to cremains would apply to this soil, i.e. scattering is restricted to land with an owner’s permission.

As the idea of composting human remains spreads, I foresee some interesting searches in the future.

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Image by Joke vander Leij from Pixabay

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Soul Search and Soul Scent, novels of supernatural suspense, have been described as Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas meets Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse. Readers have praised these novels for the very human stories behind the hauntings that create unexpected plot twists, drama, and even moments of humor. The Zackie Stories are available for purchase on Amazon and are free on Kindle Unlimited.

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The Introvert and the Odor Mortis

3 thoughts on “The Introvert and the Odor Mortis

  1. csweeney725 says:

    Hi: I read about the human compost initiative last week. My 1st reaction is that it’s one step up from canabalism. It’s also likely to have been a regular practice in the beginning of time, whenever that is. So, what’s next? Soylent Green?


    1. I think the customers for Recompose see it more like an accelerated form of what happens when a body is buried. The practice probably aligns well with many people’s religious beliefs. “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”


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