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Betsy Aardsma, 22, in a news clip torn from the paper in 1969.

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Krokodil: Russia’s Designer Drug That Will Eat Your Flesh

It sounds like a direct-to-Netflix horror movie plot — a cheap, addictive drug available in a foreign land, that turns the user’s skin a scaly green color. Soon it rots the flesh, causing the user’s skin to emulate that of a crocodile, leaving bone and muscle tissue exposed to the world. But the Russian drug known as krokodil is real.

What is in Krokodil?

Just as crack is the broke addict’s cocaine, krokodil is a substitute for a much more expensive drug, heroin. The chemical behind krokodil, desomorphine, was available as a morphine substitute shortly after laboratory synthesis in 1932. Desomorphine is 8-10 times more potent than morphine. The medicinal use of desomorphine was concentrated to Europe, particularly Switzerland. The synthetic opiate has a structure nearly identical to heroin.

Codeine, a readily available narcotic, can be turned into desomorphine in a relatively easy series of chemical reactions, and then injected intravenously by the user. Whereas heroin may cost$150 US and up per use, krokodil can be obtained for $6-$8 US per injection.

Krokodil: Russia's Designer Drug That Will Eat Your FleshHow is Krokodil made?
The problem is not necessarily desomorphine addiction, it’s the fact that krokodil users are unable to make a pure enough final product prior to use. When performed in a lab, the transformation of codeine into desomorphine is a rather easy, three step synthesis. When cooked in a kitchen lab, however, krokodil users often lack for materials, and thus usegasoline as a solvent along with red phosphorous, iodine, and hydrochloric acid as reactants to synthesize desomorphine from codeine tablets.

The final product is often an impure, orange-colored liquid, with this impurity causing skin irritation, a scale-like look, and eventual destruction of the skin. This is likely due to the presence of hydrochloric acid still in the final liquid solution prior to injection, with red phosphorous, obtained by solvating and removing the “striker” portion of matchboxes, playing a role in furthering sickening the user. Once the skin around the injection site is damaged, the area becomes a target for gangrene. This leads to skin decay around the injection site, and, in time, the skin sloughs off, often exposing the bone below.

Krokodil: Russia's Designer Drug That Will Eat Your Flesh
Addiction is a full time job
The high associated with krokodil is akin to that of heroin, but last a much shorter period. While the affects of heroin use can last four to eight hours, krokodil users are lucky to get an hour and a half of bliss, with the symptoms of withdrawal setting in soon after. Krokodil takes roughly 30 minutes to an hour to prepare with over-the-counter ingredients in a kitchen.

The short time table causes addicts to be trapped in a full time, twenty-four hour a day cycle of cooking and injecting in order to avoid withdrawal. Once someone becomes addicted, it is common for the individual to die within two-three years of heavy use from exposure and associated health issues, with many dying within a year.

Why is use prevalent in Russia?
The major reason krokodil use is confined to Russia is due to the availability of codeine for purchase without a prescription — anyone can walk into any pharmacy and buy tablets containing the starting point of krokodil synthesis. Access could quickly be cut off by making codeine containing analgesics a prescription-only pharmaceutical in Russia. This has been met with backlash from citizens, as most believe that krokodil users will find another avenue for codeine, while preventing “proper” users from obtaining the analgesic tablets.

A lack of government infrastructure also plagues krokodil users. Russia lacks a significant state-sponsored rehabilitation system, nor have they made any significant moves to ban the over the counter sale of codeine tablets. Speaking on this subject, Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Drug Control Agency, said:

A year ago we said that we need to introduce prescriptions […] These tablets don’t cost much but the profit margins are high. Some pharmacies make up to 25 per cent of their profits from the sale of these tablets. It’s not in the interests of pharmaceutical companies or pharmacies themselves to stop this, so the government needs to use its power to regulate their sale.

Krokodil: Russia's Designer Drug That Will Eat Your FleshWithdrawal symptoms can last up to month, making it a rather difficult habit to kick. It takes a phenomenal amount of will power to put up with the physical pain of withdrawal for a month than go to the kitchen and make another dose. Rehabilitation systems are present, with the vast majority religious-based due to the lack of government involvement.

Apart from wanting to name this article In Soviet Russia, Drugs Eat You, there is not a lot to laugh about in regards to krokodil. It is a debilitating, body-destroying drug that’s consumed predominantly by the poor. Reports of usage in Germany have also surfaced as of October 2011, where codeine drugs require a prescription. Codeine products have been considered “prescription only” narcotic for decades inU.S., the UK and Sweden. But pills containing codeine can still be purchased without a prescription in a Canada, Australia, Israel, France, and Japan. We may soon see the devastating effects of krokodil in these regions too.






Autopsies of War Dead Reveal Ways to Save Others

Armed Forces Medical Examiner System

After reading CT scans and X-rays, radiologists often make notes of injuries to show pathologists where to look for bullets or shrapnel during autopsies.

Published: May 25, 2009

Within an hour after the bodies arrive in their flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, they go through a process that has never been used on the dead from any other war.

Under Capt. Craig T. Mallak, pathologists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System conduct autopsies and CT scans on all service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2004, every service man and woman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan has been given a CT scan, and since 2001, when the fighting began in Afghanistan, all have had autopsies, performed by pathologists in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. In previous wars, autopsies on people killed in combat were uncommon, and scans were never done.

The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and medical equipment used on the battlefield.

The military world initially doubted the usefulness of scanning corpses but now eagerly seeks data from the scans, medical examiners say, noting that on a single day in April, they received six requests for information from the Defense Department and its contractors.

“We’ve created a huge database that’s never existed before,” said Capt. Craig T. Mallak, 48, a Navy pathologist and lawyer who is chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The medical examiners have scanned about 3,000 corpses, more than any other institution in the world, creating a minutely detailed and permanent three-dimensional record of combat injuries. Although the scans are sometimes called “virtual autopsies,” they do not replace old-fashioned autopsies. Rather, they add information and can help guide autopsies and speed them by showing pathologists where to look for bullets or shrapnel, and by revealing fractures and tissue damage so clearly that the need for lengthy dissection is sometimes eliminated. The examiners try to remove as many metal fragments as possible, because the pieces can yield information about enemy weapons.

One discovery led to an important change in the medical gear used to stabilize injured troops on the battlefield.

Col. Howard T. Harcke, a 71-year-old Army Reserve radiologist who delayed retirement to read CT scans at Dover, noticed something peculiar in late 2005. The emergency treatment for a collapsed lung involves inserting a needle and tube into the chest cavity to relieve pressure and allow the lung to reinflate. But in one case, Colonel Harcke could see from a scan that the tube was too short to reach the chest cavity. Then he saw another case, and another, and half a dozen more.

In an interview, Colonel Harcke said it was impossible to tell whether anyone had died because the tubes were too short; all had other severe injuries. But a collapsed lung can be life-threatening, so proper treatment is essential.

Colonel Harcke pulled 100 scans from the archives and used them to calculate the average thickness of the chest wall in American troops; he found that the standard tubing, five centimeters long, was too short for 50 percent of the troops. If the tubing was lengthened to eight centimeters, it would be long enough for 99 percent.

“Soldiers are bigger and stronger now,” Colonel Harcke said.

The findings were presented to the Army Surgeon General, who in August 2006 ordered that the kits given to combat medics be changed to include only the longer tubing.

“I was thrilled,” Colonel Harcke said.

The medical examiners also discovered that troops were dying from wounds to the upper body that could have been prevented by body armor that covered more of the torso and shoulders. The information, which became public in 2006, led the military to scramble to ship more armor plates to Iraq.

It was Captain Mallak who decided that autopsies should be performed on all troops killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Federal law gives him that authority.

“Families want a full accounting,” he said. During World War II and the Vietnam War, he explained, families were told simply that their loved one had died in service of their country.

“Personally, I felt that families would no longer just accept that,” Captain Mallak said.

The examiner’s office has not publicized the autopsy policy and has not often discussed it. Families are informed that autopsies are being performed and that they can request a copy of the report. Occasionally, families object, but the autopsy is done anyway. About 85 percent to 90 percent of families request the reports, and 10 percent also ask for photographs from the autopsy, said Paul Stone, a spokesman for the medical examiner system. Relatives are also told they can call or e-mail the medical examiners with questions.

“Every day, families come back for more information,” Captain Mallak said. “The No. 1 question they want to know is, ‘Did my loved one suffer?’ If we can say, ‘No, it was instantaneous, he or she never knew what happened,’ they do get a great sense of relief out of that. But we don’t lie.”

Indeed, the reports are sent with cover letters urging the families not to read them alone.

The possibility that a relative burned to death is a particular source of anguish for families, and one area in which CT can outperform an autopsy. In a body damaged by flames, CT can help pathologists figure out whether the burns occurred before or after death. The scans can also tell whether a person found in water died from drowning. Families who request the autopsy reports often put off reading them, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group for people who have lost relatives in war.

“I think people feel, ‘We should request it; we may not want to read it today, but we may want to read it 10 years from now,’ ” Ms. Neiberger-Miller said. Her brother was killed in Baghdad in 2007, she said, and her family has never opened his autopsy report.

Liz Sweet, whose 23-year-old son, T. J., committed suicide in Iraq in 2003, requested his autopsy report and read it.

“For our family, we needed it,” Mrs. Sweet said. “I just felt better knowing I had that report.” T. J. Sweet’s coffin was closed, so Mrs. Sweet asked Captain Mallak for a photograph taken before the autopsy, to prove to herself that it really was her son who had died.

“He was one of the most compassionate people throughout this whole process that I dealt with from the Department of Defense,” Mrs. Sweet said of Captain Mallak.

The scans and autopsies are done in a 70,000-square-foot facility at the Dover base that is both a pathology laboratory and a mortuary. Journalists are not allowed inside. The CT scanning began in 2004, when it was suggested and paid for by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, part of the Defense Department. Darpa got the idea of using CT scanners to perform virtual autopsies from Switzerland, where it started about 10 years ago.

Now the idea of virtual autopsies has begun to catch on with medical examiners in this country, who are eager to use it in murder cases but also to learn the cause of death in people from religious groups that forbid traditional autopsies. Scans can also help pathologists plan limited autopsies if a family finds a complete one too invasive.

John Getz, the program manager for the Armed Forces medical examiners, said mobile CT scanners could also be used to screen mass casualties during disasters like Hurricane Katrina, to help with identification and also to determine if any of the dead were the victims of crimes rather than accidents.

The Armed Forces CT scanner, specially designed to scan entire corpses one after another, is the envy of medical examiners and crime laboratories around the country, and several states have asked Captain Mallak and his colleagues for advice on setting up scanners.

Colonel Harcke said he hoped the technology would help to increase the autopsy rates at civilian hospitals, which now perform them only 5 percent to 10 percent of the time.

“We hope to return to a time where we were 50 years ago,” he said, “when autopsies were an important part of the medical model, and we continued to learn after death.”


Death is the cessation or permanent termination of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, suicide, murder and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury. All known organisms inevitably experience death. Bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death.

In human societies, the nature of death has for millennia been a concern of the world’s religious traditions and of philosophical inquiry. This may include a belief in some kind of resurrection (associated with Abrahamic religions), reincarnation (associated with Dharmic religions), or that consciousness permanently ceases to exist, known as “oblivion” (often associated with atheism).

Commemoration ceremonies after death may include various mourning or funeral practices. The physical remains of a person, commonly known as a corpse or body, are usually interred whole or cremated, though among the world’s cultures there are a variety of other methods of mortuary disposal


The word death comes from Old English deað, which in turn comes from Proto-Germanic *dauþaz (reconstructed by etymological analysis). This comes from the Proto-Indo-European stem *dheu- meaning the ‘Process, act, condition of dying’.

Associated terms

The concept and symptoms of death, and varying degrees of delicacy used in discussion in public forums, have generated numerous scientific, legal, and socially acceptable terms or euphemisms for death. When a person has died, it is also said they have passed away, passed on, or expired, among numerous other socially accepted, religiously specific, slang, and irreverent terms. Bereft of life, the dead person is then a corpse, cadaver, a body, a set of remains, and finally a skeleton. The terms carrion and carcass can also be used, though these more often connote the remains of non-human animals. As a polite reference to a dead person, it has become common practice to use the participle form of “decease”, as in the deceased; the noun form is decedent. The ashes left after a cremation are sometimes referred to by the neologism cremains, a portmanteau of “cremation” and “remains”.

Death (personification)

The concept of death as a sentient entity has existed in many societies, cultures, and religions since the beginning of history. In English, Death is often given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onwards, came to be shown as a skeletal figure carrying a largescythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood. It is also given the name of the Angel of Death or Devil of Death or the angel of dark and light (Malach HaMavet) stemming from the Bible and Talmudic lore. The Bible itself does not refer to “The Angel of Death”; there is, however, a reference to “Abaddon” (The Destroyer), an Angel who is known as the “The Angel of the Abyss”. In Talmudic lore, he is characterized as archangel Samael.

In some cases, the Grim Reaper is able to actually cause the victim’s death, leading to tales that he can be bribed, tricked, or outwitted in order to retain one’s life, such as in the case of Sisyphus. Other beliefs hold that the Spectre of Death is only a psychopomp, serving to sever the last ties between the soul and the body and to guide the deceased to the next world without having any control over the fact of the victim’s death. In many languages (including English), Death is personified in male form, while in others, it is perceived as a female character (for instance, in Slavic and Romance languages).


Indo-European folklore/mythology


Thanatos as a winged youth, c. 325–300 BC, at Temple of Artemis, Ephesos

Ancient Greece found Death to be inevitable, and, therefore, he is not represented as purely evil. He is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy. Death, or Thanatos, is the counterpart of life, death being represented as male, and life as female. He is the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He is typically shown with his brother and is represented as being just and gentle. His job is to escort the dead to the underworld, Hades. He then hands the dead over to Charon, who mans the boat that carries them over the river Styx, which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. It was believed that if the ferryman did not receive some sort of payment, the soul would not be delivered to the underworld and would be left by the riverside for a hundred years. Thanatos’ sisters, the Keres, were the spirits of violent death. They were associated with deaths from battle, disease, accident, and murder. The sisters were portrayed as evil, often feeding on the blood of the body after the soul had been escorted to Hades. They had fangs and talons, and would be dressed in bloody garments.


Breton folklore shows us a spectral figure portending death, the Ankou. Usually, the Ankou is the spirit of the last person that died within the community and appears as a tall, haggard figure with a wide hat and long white hair or a skeleton with a revolving head who sees everybody everywhere. The Ankou drives a deathly wagon or cart with a creaking axle. The cart or wagon is piled high with corpses and a stop at a cabin means instant death for those inside.

In Ireland was a creature known as a dullahan, whose head would be tucked under his or her arm (dullahans were not one, but an entire species), and the head was said to have large eyes and a smile that could reach the head’s ears. The dullahan would ride a black horse or a carriage pulled by black horses, and stop at the house of someone about to die, and call their name, and immediately the person dies. The dullahan did not like being watched, and it was believed that if a dullahan knows someone’s watching them, they’ll lash their eyes with their whip, which was made from a spine, or they would toss a basin of blood on the person, which was a sign that that person was next to die.

Scottish folklore believe a black or dark green dog known as a cù sith took the soul of a dying person to the afterlife.


In Poland, Death, or Śmierć, has an appearance similar to the traditional Grim Reaper, but instead of a black robe, Death has a white robe. Also, due to grammar, Death is a female (the word śmierć is of feminine gender), mostly seen as an old skeletal woman, as depicted in 15th century dialogue“Rozmowa Mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią” (Latin: “Dialogus inter Mortem et Magistrum Polikarpum”).


In Norway, the personification of Death because of the Black Plague is an old woman known by the name of Pesta, meaning “plague hag”. She wore a black hood. She would go into a town carrying either a rake or a broom. If she brought the rake, some people would survive the plague; if she brought the broom, however, everyone would die.


Lithuanians named Death Giltinė, deriving from word gelti (“to sting”). Giltinė was viewed as an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a deadly poisonous tongue. The legend tells that Giltinė was young, pretty and communicative until she was trapped in a coffin for seven years. The goddess of death was a sister of the goddess of life and destiny, Laima, symbolizing the relationship between beginning and end.

Later, Lithuanians adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.

Hindu Scriptures

The Sanskrit word for death is Mrtyu (cognate with Latin mors and Polish Śmierć), which is often personified in Dharmic religions. In Hindu scriptures, the lord of death is called Yama, or Yamaraj (literally “the lord of death”). Yamaraj rides a black buffalo and carries a rope lasso to carry the soul back to his abode, called “Yamalok”(the world of Yama – or the Underworld of the dead). There are many forms of reapers, although some say there is only one who disguises himself as a small child. His agents, the Yamaduts, carry souls back to Yamalok. There, all the accounts of a person’s good and bad deeds are stored and maintained by Chitragupta. The balance of these deeds allows Yamaraj to decide where the soul has to reside in its next life, following the theory of reincarnation. Yama is also mentioned in the Mahabharata as a great philosopher and devotee of Supreme Brahman.

Yama is also known as Dharmaraj, or king of Dharma or justice. One interpretation is that justice is served equally to all whether they are alive or dead, based on their karma or fate. This is further strengthened by the idea that Yudhishtra, the eldest of the pandavas and considered as the personification of justice, was born due to Kunti’s prayers to Yamaraj.

Regarding ‘Yama, the God of Death and Justice’writes Dr. Sailen Debnath, “Birth and death necessarily constitute the nature of life. Death makes life ephemeral and it is death which gives the conscious being the required energy for the umpteen actions and above all, the zeal to know the truth about life itself. In the Hindu pantheon, Yama, the lord of death, is also called ‘Dharma Raja’ or the king of ethics and justice. The justice being referred to is that which nature administers through its own system. That justice or law of nature is, unavoidably abiding, and for that reason, this eternal law-embodied symbol, Yama, is a god who equalises every thing through his power of bestowing death. He equalises the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, the foolish and the wise by making them all a part of the same process of corporeal extinction. He does not favour any one. Regardless of the time and the station of one’s life, one has to undergo the universal rules of Yama. His rule is supreme and he deals with all in the same way. In his domain a Hitler, an Einstein, a Newton or a cobbler is accorded the same treatment. . In fact, in the progress of evolution, death is a necessity because death is the process of the dismemberment of elements constituting the body just as birth is the process of the assembling of elements together, leading to the formation of the body. Thus, through birth and death, changes are made possible and devoid of change, evolution of life is not possible.”

Buddhist scriptures also mention Yama or Yamaraj, much in the similar way.

East Asian folklore / mythology

In Chinese mythology, Yanluo (simplified Chinese: 阎罗; traditional Chinese: 閻羅; pinyin: Yánluó; Wade–Giles: Yen-lo), is the god of death and the ruler of Di Yu (Jp. 地獄 Jigoku, ko. 지옥 Jiok, “hell” or the underworld). The deity originated from Yama in Hinduism and was adopted into the Chinese pantheon and eventually spread to Japan as Enma-O (閻魔大王) and Korea as Great King Yŏmna (염라대왕). He is normally depicted wearing a Chinese judge’s cap and traditional Chinese robes in both Chinese and Japanese depictions.

In Japanese mythology and in the Kojiki, after giving birth to the fire god Hinokagutsuchi, the goddess Izanami dies from wounds from his fire and enters the perpetual night realm called Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) that the gods retire to and to which Izanagi, her husband, traveled in a failed attempt to reclaim her. He discovers his wife as not-so beautiful anymore, and, following a brief argument afterwards, she promises him she will take a thousand lives every day, signifying her position as the goddess of death.

There are also death gods called shinigami, which are closer to the Western tradition of the Grim Reaper. Shinigami (often plural) are common in modern Japanese arts and fiction and essentially absent from traditional mythology.

In Abrahamic religions

The “Angel of the Lord” smites 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp (II Kings 19:35). When the Angel of Death passes through to smite the Egyptian first-born, God prevents “the destroyer” (shâchath) from entering houses with blood on the lintel and side posts (Exodus 12:23). The “destroying angel” (mal’ak ha-mashḥit) rages among the people in Jerusalem (II Sam. 24:16). In I Chronicles 21:15 the “angel of the Lord” is seen by King David standing “between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem.” The biblical Book of Job (33:22) uses the general term “destroyers” (memitim), which tradition has identified with “destroying angels” (mal’ake Khabbalah), and Prov. 16:14 uses the term the “angels of death” (mal’ake ha-mavet). Azra’il is sometimes referred as the Angel of Death as well.


La mort du fossoyeur (Death of the gravedigger) by Carlos Schwabe

The memitim are a type of angel from biblical lore associated with the mediation over the lives of the dying. The name is derived from the Hebrew wordmĕmītǐm and refers to angels that brought about the destruction of those whom the guardian angels no longer protected. While there may be some debate among religious scholars regarding the exact nature of the memitim, it is generally accepted that, as described in the Book of Job 33:22, they are killers of some sort.

In Judaism

Form and functions

According to the Midrash, the Angel of Death was created by God on the first day. His dwelling is in heaven, whence he reaches earth in eight flights, whereas Pestilence reaches it in one. He has twelve wings. “Over all people have I surrendered thee the power,” said God to the Angel of Death, “only not over this one which has received freedom from death through the Law.” It is said of the Angel of Death that he is full of eyes. In the hour of death, he stands at the head of the departing one with a drawn sword, to which clings a drop of gall, another word for bile. As soon as the dying man sees Death, he is seized with a convulsion and opens his mouth, whereupon Death throws the drop into it. This drop causes his death; he turns putrid, and his face becomes yellow. The expression “the taste of death” originated in the idea that death was caused by a drop of gall.

The soul escapes through the mouth, or, as is stated in another place, through the throat; therefore, the Angel of Death stands at the head of the patient (Adolf Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94, Midr. Teh. to Ps. xi.). When the soul forsakes the body, its voice goes from one end of the world to the other, but is not heard (Gen. R. vi. 7; Ex. R. v. 9; Pirḳe R. El. xxxiv.). The drawn sword of the Angel of Death, mentioned by the Chronicler (I. Chron. 21:15; comp. Job 15:22; Enoch 62:11), indicates that the Angel of Death was figured as a warrior who kills off the children of men. “Man, on the day of his death, falls down before the Angel of Death like a beast before the slaughterer” (Grünhut, “Liḳḳuṭim”, v. 102a). R. Samuel’s father (c. 200) said: “The Angel of Death said to me, ‘Only for the sake of the honor of mankind do I not tear off their necks as is done to slaughtered beasts'” (‘Ab. Zarah 20b). In later representations, the knife sometimes replaces the sword, and reference is also made to the cord of the Angel of Death, which indicates death by throttling. Moses says to God: “I fear the cord of the Angel of Death” (Grünhut, l.c. v. 103a et seq.). Of the fourJewish methods of execution, three are named in connection with the Angel of Death: Burning (by pouring hot lead down the victim’s throat), slaughtering (by beheading), and throttling. The Angel of Death administers the particular punishment that God has ordained for the commission of sin.

A peculiar mantle (“idra”-according to Levy, “Neuhebr. Wörterb.” i. 32, a sword) belongs to the equipment of the Angel of Death (Eccl. R. iv. 7). The Angel of Death takes on the particular form which will best serve his purpose; e.g., he appears to a scholar in the form of a beggar imploring pity (The beggar should receive Tzedakah.)(M. Ḳ. 28a). “When pestilence rages in the town, walk not in the middle of the street, because the Angel of Death [i.e., pestilence] strides there; if peace reigns in the town, walk not on the edges of the road. When pestilence rages in the town, go not alone to the synagogue, because there the Angel of Death stores his tools. If the dogs howl, the Angel of Death has entered the city; if they make sport, the prophet Elijah has come” (B. Ḳ. 60b). The “destroyer” (saṭan ha-mashḥit) in the daily prayer is the Angel of Death (Ber. 16b). Midr. Ma’ase Torah (compare Jellinek, “B. H.” ii. 98) says: “There are six Angels of Death: Gabriel over kings; Ḳapẓiel over youths; Mashbir over animals; Mashḥit over children; Af and Ḥemah over man and beast.”

Death and Satan

Drawing of Death bringing cholera, inLe Petit Journal

The Angel of Death, who is identified by some with Satan, immediately after his creation had a dispute with God as to the light of the Messiah (Pesiḳ. R.161b). When Eve touched the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she perceived the Angel of Death, and thought, “Now I shall die, and God will create another wife for Adam.” Adam also had a conversation with the Angel of Death (Böklen, “Die Verwandtschaft der Jüdisch-Christlichen mit der Parsischen Eschatologie”, p. 12). The Angel of Death sits before the face of the dead (Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94). While Abraham was mourning for Sarah, the angel appeared to him, which explains why “Abraham stood up from before his death”.Samael told Sarah that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac in spite of his wailing, and Sarah died of horror and grief. It was Moses who most often had dealings with the angel. At the rebellion of Korah, Moses saw him (Num. R. v. 7; Bacher, l.c. iii. 333; compare Sanh. 82a). It was the Angel of Death in the form of Pestilence who snatched away 15,000 every year during the wandering in the wilderness (ib. 70). When Moses reached heaven, the angel told him something (Jellinek, l.c. i. 61).

When the Angel of Death came to Moses and said, “Give me thy soul,” Moses called to him: “Where I sit thou hast no right to stand.” The Angel retired ashamed and reported the occurrence to God. Again, God commanded him to bring the soul of Moses. The Angel went and, not finding him, inquired of the sea, of the mountains, and of the valleys; but they knew nothing of him. Really, Moses did not die through the Angel of Death, but through God’s kiss (bi-neshiḳah); i.e., God drew his soul out of his body (B. B. 17a; compare Abraham in Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature, and parallel references in Böklen, l.c. p. 11). Legend seizes upon the story of Moses’ struggle with the Angel of Death and expands it at length (Tan., ed. Stettin, pp. 624 et seq.; Deut. R. ix., xi.; Grünhut, l.c. v. 102b, 169a). As Benaiah bound Ashmedai (Jew. Encyc. ii. 218a), so Moses binds the Angel of Death that he may bless Israel.

Solomon once noticed that the Angel of Death was grieved. When questioned as to the cause of his sorrow, he answered: “I am requested to take your two beautiful scribes.” Solomon at once charged the demons to convey his scribes to Luz, where the Angel of Death could not enter. When they were near the city, however, they both died. The Angel laughed on the next day, whereupon Solomon asked the cause of his mirth. “Because,” answered the Angel, “thou didst send the youths thither, whence I was ordered to fetch them” (Suk. 53a). In the next world, God will let the Angel of Death fight against Pharaoh,Sisera, and Sennacherib.

Scholars and the Angel of Death

Black Angel, Oakland Cemetery (Iowa City, Iowa)

Talmud teachers of the 4th century associate quite familiarly with him. When he appeared to one on the street, the teacher reproached him with rushing upon him as upon a beast, whereupon the angel called upon him at his house. To another, he granted a respite of thirty days, that he might put his knowledge in order before entering the next world. To a third, he had no access, because he could not interrupt the study of the Talmud. To a fourth, he showed a rod of fire, whereby he is recognized as the Angel of Death (M. K. 28a). He often entered the house of Bibi and conversed with him (Ḥag. 4b). Often, he resorts to strategy in order to interrupt and seize his victim (B. M. 86a; Mak. 10a).

The death of Joshua ben Levi in particular is surrounded with a web of fable. When the time came for him to die and the Angel of Death appeared to him, he demanded to be shown his place in paradise. When the angel had consented to this, he demanded the angel’s knife, that the angel might not frighten him by the way. This request also was granted him, and Joshua sprang with the knife over the wall of paradise; the angel, who is not allowed to enter paradise, caught hold of the end of his garment. Joshua swore that he would not come out, and God declared that he should not leave paradise unless he was absolved from his oath; if not absolved, he was to remain. The Angel of Death then demanded back his knife, but Joshua refused. At this point, a heavenly voice (bat ḳol) rang out: “Give him back the knife, because the children of men have need of it” (Ket. 77b; Jellinek, l.c. ii. 48-51; Bacher, l.c. i. 192 et seq.).

Rabbinic views

The Rabbis found the Angel of Death mentioned in Psalm 134:45 (it should be noted that Psalms 134 only has 3 verses in all English translations)(A. V. 48), where the Targum translates: “There is no man who lives and, seeing the Angel of Death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Eccl. 8:4 is thus explained in Midrash Rabbah to the passage: “One may not escape the Angel of Death, nor say to him, ‘Wait until I put my affairs in order,’ or ‘There is my son, my slave: take him in my stead.'” Where the Angel of Death appears, there is no remedy (Talmud, Ned. 49a; Hul. 7b). If one who has sinned has confessed his fault, the Angel of Death may not touch him (Midrash Tanhuma, ed. Buber, 139). God protects from the Angel of Death (Midrash Genesis Rabbah lxviii.).

By acts of benevolence, the anger of the Angel of Death is overcome; when one fails to perform such acts the Angel of Death will make his appearance (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, viii.). The Angel of Death receives his order from God (Ber. 62b). As soon as he has received permission to destroy, however, he makes no distinction between good and bad (B. Ḳ. 60a). In the city of Luz. the Angel of Death has no power, and, when the aged inhabitants are ready to die, they go outside the city (Soṭah 46b; compare Sanh. 97a). A legend to the same effect existed in Ireland in the Middle Ages (Jew. Quart. Rev. vi. 336).

In Christianity

Death is, either as a metaphor, a personification or an actual being, referenced occasionally in the New Testament, even though it can be debated whether these texts are discussing death as a being or as a concept. Christians widely understand these references to Death to mean the death not just of the physical body, but also the death of Hope – of permanent separation from God, usually understood to be in Hell. This therefore does not lend weight to the argument of death personified in these contexts. However, some references could be interpreted as referring to an actual being. One such personification is found in Acts 2:24 – “But God raised Him [Jesus] from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for Death to keep its hold on Him.” Later passages, however, are much more explicit. Romans 5 speaks of Death as having “reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses,” and various passages in the Epistles speak of Christ’s work on the cross and His resurrection as a confrontation with Death. Such verses include Rom. 6:9 and 2 Tim. 1:10. Death is still viewed as enduring in Scripture. 1 Cor. 15:26 asserts, “The last enemy to be destroyed is Death,” which implies that Death has not been destroyed once and for all. This assertion later proves true in the Book of Revelation.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews declares that Satan “holds the power of Death” (Heb. 2:14). It is written that the Son became human that by his death he might destroy the devil; this is the head of the Beast referred to in “One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed” (Rev. 13:3) as well as the head of the serpent as preemptively referred to in Genesis 3:15 – “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise Him on the heel”. If the head that was fatally wounded but healed refers to Death, this accords with 2 Tim. 1:10, which states that Jesus “has destroyed Death”, and the implication that Death was yet to be destroyed in 1 Cor. 15:26. The victory over Death is also referred to as “Eternal Life”.

The final destruction of Death is referenced by Paul in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians; he says that after the general resurrection, the prophecies of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 – “He will swallow up Death forever”, and “Where, O Death, is your sting?” (Septuagint), will be fulfilled. According to Paul, the power of Death lies in sin, which is made possible by the Law, but God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That victory over Death is also discussed in the Revelation of John.

In the visions of John, Death is used as one of the metaphorical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rev. 6:8 reads, “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth”. In Rev. 20:13-14, in the vision of judgment of the dead, it is written, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” This describes the destruction of the last enemy. After this, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

In Roman Catholicism, the archangel Michael is viewed as the good Angel of Death (as opposed to Samael, the controversial Angel of Death), carrying the souls of the deceased to Heaven. There, he balances them in his scales (one of his symbols). He is said to give the dying souls the chance to redeem themselves before passing as well. A few people in Mexico regard the Angel of Death as a saint, known as Santa Muerte, and as San La Muerte in Argentina and Paraguay, but this local cult is not acknowledged by the Catholic Church.

In the Bible, the fourth horseman of the Book of Revelation is called Death and is pictured with Hades following him.

In Islam

In Islam, the concept of death is viewed as a celebratory event as opposed to one to be dreaded. It is the passage of the everlasting soul into a closer dimension to its creator that is seen as a point of joy, rather than misery, obvious mortal grief and sadness notwithstanding. Indeed, the Islamic prophetMuhammad demonstrated that grief was an acceptable form of what makes us human, however prolonged mourning at the expense of the living is inappropriate, especially in the light of the transition from one world to the next.

Death is represented by Azrael, Malak al-Mawt, one of God’s archangels in the Qu’ran:

  • In translation, not adding in the book, The real key words of translation properly, “Old Aramaic transcripts”.

Biblical Aramaic ‘I-laha “God”. אלהי I-lahi definition “My god”. I-lah definition “god”. The “i” after I-lah in “I-lahi” …”i” after “I-lah” in “I-lahi” “i” definition “my”.

Chapter (1) sūrat l-fātiḥah (The Opening) Verse 1:1:1 to 1:6:3 In name of “God”, the most gracious, the most merciful, all praise and thanks to “God”, the Lord of universe, the most gracious, the most merciful, Master (of the) day, the judgement, You alone we worship and you alone we ask for help, Guide us, the path, the straight.

Chapter (7) sūrat l-a’rāf (The Heights) Verse 7:37:1 to 7:37:37 7:37:1 to 7:37:15 Then who (is) more unjust than (one) who invented against my “God”, a lie or denies his verses? Those will reach them their portion from the book. 7:37:16 to 7:37:21 Until when they come to the our messengers to take them in death. (To take their souls), they say. 7:37:22 to 7:37:29 “Where are those (whom) you used to invoke from besides my “God”” they say. 7:37:30 to 7:37:37 “They strayed from us,” and they (will) testify against themselves that they were disbelievers.

Chapter (5) sūrat l-māidah (The Table spread with Food) Verse 5:15:1 to 5:16:18 5:15:1 to 5:15:5… O People of the book surely has come to you “our messenger”. 5:15:6 to 5:15:13 Making clear to you much of what you used from something that had been concealed in the book, (the scriptures) 5:15:14 to 5:15:18 And overlooking of much surely has come to you. 5:15:19 to 5:15:22 From my “God”,”a light” & “a book”. 5:15:23 to 5:16:2 Clear guides with it. 5:16:3 to 5:16:8 “God” those who seek his pleasure, (to the) ways “(of) I-salami, “peace”. 5:16:7 subula to (through) the way. 5:16:8 l-salāmi (of) the peace 5:16:9 to 5:16:11 And brings them out from the darkness. 5:16:12 to 5:16:14 To “the light”, by “his permission”. 5:16:13 “I-nuri” the light. 5:16:14 bi-idh’nihi by his permission. 5:16:15 to 5:16:18 And guides them to the way the straight.

Subula l-salāmi ways peace ṣirāṭin mus’taqīmin ways straight 5:16:8 I-salami Peace

Chapter (5) sūrat l-māidah (The Table spread with Food) verse 5:44:1 to 5:44:41 5:44:1 to 5:44:8 Indeed,we revealed “l-tawrāta”(Torah,Taurat) in it guidance the light,judge by it. 5:44:9 to 5:44:15 The prophets those who had submitted to peace for those who were Jews and the rabbis and the scholars. 5:14:16 to 5:44:20 With what those were entrusted of book (of) my God, 5:44:21 to 5:44:23 And they were to it witnesess. 5:44:24 to 5:44:27 So (do) not fear the people but fear me 5:44:28 to 5:44:31 And (do) not sell my (God) verses (for) a price,little (for a little price). 5:44:33 to 5:44:38 And whoever (does) not judge by what has revealed,God. 5:44:39 to 5:44:41 Then those they,the disbelievers.

Chapter (5) sūrat l-māidah (The Table spread with Food) verse 5:54:1 to 5:55:13 5:54:1 to 5:54:8 O you who believe, whoever turn back among you from his religions. 5:54:9 to 5:54:14 Then soon will be brought by God, the people whom he loves and they love him. 5:54:15 to 5:54:20 Humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers. 5:54:21 to 5:54:28 Striving in way of my God and not fearing the blame, the critic. 5:54:29 to 5:54:32 That’s the grace of my God, he grants whom he wills. 5:54:35 to 5:55:13 And God, all compassiate (all guiding), all knowing, only your ally, God and his messengers and those who believe, and those who establish the prayer and give the purification works (I-zakata), and they those who bow down.

Chapter (3) sūrat āl ʿim’rān (The Family of Imrān) verse 3:30:1 to 3:31:14 3:30:1 to 3:30:9 (On the) day will find every soul what it did of good presented. 3:30:10 to 3:30:13 And what it did of evil. 3:30:14 to 3:30:20 It will wish that (if) between itself & between it (evil),a distance great. 3:30:21 to 3:30:26 And warn you,God himself and God most kind to his believers. 3:31:1 to 3:31:8 Say “if you love God,then follow me,will love you God”. 3:31:9 to 3:31:14 And he will forgive for you,your sins and God is oft forgiving most merciful.

The irony of the Angel of Death refers to his involvement in the creation of life. In these verses the Angel of Death and his assistants are sent to take the soul of those destined to die. Who is the Angel of Death? When God wanted to create Adam, he sent one of the Angels of the Throne to bring some of the Earth’s clay to fashion Adam from it. When the angel came to earth to take the clay, the earth told him: “I beseech you by the One Who sent you not to take anything from me to make someone who will be punished one day.” When the angel returned empty-handed, God asked him why he did not bring back any clay. The angel said: “The earth besought me by Your greatness not to take anything from it.” Then God sent another angel, but the same thing happened, and then another, until God decided to send Azra’il, the Angel of Death. The earth spoke to him as it had spoken to the others, but Azra’il said: “Obedience to God is better than obedience to you, even if you beseech me by His greatness.” And Azra’il took clay from the Earth’s east and its west, its north and its south, and brought it back to God. God poured some water of paradise on this clay and it became soft, and from it He created Adam.

He’s mistakenly known by the name of “Izrail” (not to be confused with Israel, which is a name in Islam solely for Prophet Ya’qoob / Jacob), since the name Izrael is not mentioned in the Qu’ran nor Hadith, the English form of which is Azra’il. He’s charged with the task of separating and returning from the bodies the souls of people who are to be recalled permanently from the physical world back to the primordial spiritual world. This is a process whose aspect varies depending on the nature and past deeds of the individual in question, and it is known that the Angel of Death is also accompanied by helpers or associates.

Apart from the characteristics and responsibilities he has in common with other angels in Islam, little else concerning the Angel of Death can be derived from fundamental Muslim texts. Many references are made in various Muslim legends, however, some of which are included in books authored by Muslim poets and mystics (Sufis who do not have citations from Qu’ran nor Sunnah). For instance, it is said that when someone’s time has come, the angel of death appears only to him and to no one else even if he is in a room full of people. If this person has more sins than good deeds the angel would appear to him in a vile and ugly form. The angel would rip his soul from him in an agonizing way. If the person has more good deeds than sins the angel would take his soul from him as gently as a mother rocking her baby.

The following tale is related in the Naqshbandi order of Sufism on the practicalities of sweeping up human souls from the expanse of the earth:

The Prophet Abraham once asked Azra’il who has two eyes in the front of his head and two eyes in the back: “O Angel of Death! What do you do if one man dies in the east and another in the west, or if a land is stricken by the plague, or if two armies meet in the field?” The angel said: “O Messenger of God! the names of these people are inscribed on the lawh al-mahfuz: It is the ‘Preserved Tablet’ on which all human destinies are engraved. I gaze at it incessantly. It informs me of the moment when the lifetime of any living being on earth has come to an end, be it one of mankind or one of the beasts. There is also a tree next to me, called the Tree of Life. It is covered with myriads of tiny leaves, smaller than the leaves of the olive-tree and much more numerous. Whenever a person is born on earth, the tree sprouts a new leaf, and on this leaf is written the name of that person. It is by means of this tree that I know who is born and who is to die. When a person is going to die, his leaf begins to wilt and dry, and it falls from the tree onto the tablet. Then this person’s name is erased from the Preserved Tablet. This event happens forty days before the actual death of that person. We are informed forty days in advance of his impending death. That person himself may not know it and may continue his life on earth full of hope and plans. However, we here in the heavens know and have that information. That is why God has said: ‘Your sustenance has been written in the heavens and decreed for you,’ and it includes the life-span. The moment we see in heaven that leaf wilting and dying we mix it into that person’s provision, and from the fortieth day before his death he begins to consume his leaf from the Tree of Life without knowing it. Only forty days then remain of his life in this world, and after that there is no provision for him in it. Then I summon the spirits by God’s leave, until they are present right before me, and the earth is flattened out and left like a dish before me, from which I partake as I wish, by God’s order.”

Memento mori

Memento mori

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The original cemetery in Apalachicola, Florida contains many ancient and beautiful gravestones
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© 2009 Joshua Farnsworth
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Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die” or “Remember you will die”. It refers to a genre of artworks that vary widely but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their mortality, an artistic theme dating back to antiquity


A cemetery is a spatially defined area where the remains of deceased people are buried or are otherwise interred. The term “cemetery” (from Greek κοιμητήριον: sleeping place) implies that the land is specifically designated as a burial ground. The intact or cremated remains of deceased people may be interred. The remains may be interred in a grave, commonly referred to as burial, or may be interred in a tomb, an “above-ground grave” (resembling a sarcophagus), a mausoleum, columbarium, or other edifice. In Western cultures, funeral ceremonies are often observed in cemeteries. These ceremonies or rites of passage differ according to cultural practices and religious beliefs. Modern cemeteries often include crematoria, and some grounds previously used for both, continue as crematoria as a principal use long after the interment areas have been filled.

Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world in other cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it is a national holiday, and all banks are closed. The celebration takes place on October 30th, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.

Post-mortem photography

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Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as “snapshot” photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.

 Evolving style

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.
The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject’s eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.

Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.

Responses in contemporary photography

As the common practice of post-mortem photography in North America and Western Europe has largely ceased, the portrayal of such images has become increasingly seen as vulgar, sensationalistic and taboo. This is in marked contrast to the beauty and sensitivity perceived in the older tradition, indicating a cultural shift that may reflect wider social discomfort with death. Notably, however, the photographs of a number of contemporary artists imply a dialogue that helps illuminate the intent of the early works.

Andres Serrano’s controversial “corpse” series presents morgue photographs of the victims of violent death in the manner of beautified portraits.

Somewhat similarly, the Mexican tabloid photographer Enrique Metinides—known for his stark and often grisly depictions of life in Mexico City—documents crime scene victims using an unexpected compositionally rich aesthetic that has seen his work exhibited to positive critical response in galleries worldwide. Joel-Peter Witkin does similar work.

Irish photographer Maeve Berry finds an aesthetic compromise by capturing the burning embers of bodies within the funeral crematorium.

Recently Lyn Hagan has produced a series of hand embroidered portraits of the children in Paul Freckers collection. These reflect a fascination in how people react to impermanence and how such photos were “a means of capturing the image of the person in one last futile gesture that denies their loss whilst at the same time admitting it totally”.




Thanatology is the scientific study of death. It investigates the mechanisms and forensic aspects of death, such as bodily changes that accompany death and the post-mortem period, as well as wider social aspects related to death. It is primarily an interdisciplinary study offered as a course of study at numerous colleges and universities.

The word is derived from the Greek language. In Greek mythology, Thanatos (θάνατος: “death”) is the personification of death.The English suffix -ology derives from the Greek suffix -logia (-λογια: “speaking”).


In 1903, Russian scientist, Élie Metchnikoff, who was famous for his work in microbiology and the discovery of phagocytosis, advocated that without systematic attention to death, life sciences would not be complete. Through this argument, Metchnikoff called for the establishment of a scientific discipline devoted to the study of death. He argued that those who were dying had few or no resources for the experience of dying and that an academic study would help those facing death to have a better understanding of the phenomenon and reduce their fear of it.

Metchnikoff based his ideas for an interdisciplinary study on the fact that while medical students had their obligatory encounters with cadavers through anatomical studies there was almost no instruction on how to care for the dying, nor was there any research into death included in the curriculum. Because few scholars and educators agreed with Metchnikoff, the support he needed for the realization of his suggestion didn’t materialize for decades.

Following World War II, the world was haunted with the memories of the many casualties. During this period of reflection many existential philosophers began considering life-and-death issues. One in particular was Herman Feifel, an American psychologist who is considered the pioneer of the modern death movement. Feifel broke the taboo on discussions of death and dying with the publication of his book The Meaning of Death . In this book, Feifel dispelled myths held by scientists and practitioners about death and the denial of its importance for human behaviour. It earned wide attention and became a classic in the new field, including as it did contributions from eminent thinkers such as psychiatrist Carl Jung, theologian Paul Tillich and philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Through The Meaning of Death, Feifel was able to lay the foundation for a field that would eventually be known as Thanatology. The field was to improve death education and grief counselling by the use of valid death-related data, methodology and theory.


In most cases, thanatology is not directly related to palliative care, which aims to provide treatment for dying individuals and their families. According to the World Health Organization, “palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness”, involving the “treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual”.

Thanatology does not directly explore the meaning of life and of death. Such questions are irrelevant to those studying the medical aspects. Some medical texts refer to inquiries of the meaning of life and death as absurd and futile. However, the question is very relevant to the psychological health of those involved in the dying process: individuals, families, communities, and cultures.


Fields of study

As an interdisciplinary study, thanatology relies on collaboration with many different fields of study. Death is a universal human concern; it has been examined and re-examined in a wide variety of disciplines, dating back to pre-history. Some of these fields of study are academic in nature; others have evolved throughout history as cultural traditions.

The humanities are, perhaps, the very oldest disciplines to explore death. Historically, the average human had a significantly lower standard of living and lifespan in the past than he or she would today. Wars, famine, and disease always kept death close at hand. Artists, authors, and poets often employed the universality of death as a motif in their works; this trend continues today.

The social sciences are often involved on both the individual and on the cultural level. The individual level is primarily covered by psychology, the study of individual minds. Avoiding (or, in some cases, seeking) death is an important human motive; the fear of death affects many individuals’ actions.

Several social sciences focus on the broad picture, and they frequently encounter the issue of death. Sociology is the study of social rules. Sub-disciplines within sociology, such as the sociology of disaster, focus more narrowly on the issue of how societies handle death. Likewise, cultural anthropology and archeology concern themselves with how current and past cultures deal with death, respectively. Society and culture are similar concepts, but their scopes are different. A society is an interdependent community, while culture is an attribute of a community: the complex web of shifting patterns that link individuals together. In any case, both cultures and societies must deal with death; the various cultural studies (many of which overlap with each other) examine this response using a variety of approaches.

Thanatology is a section of Forensic Sciences. The biological study of death helps explain what happens, physically, to individuals in the moment of dying and after-death bodily changes, so that the events that took place at the time of death and post-mortem can be clarified. In Psychiatry, the medical application of psychological principles and therapeutic drugs, is also involved; many licensed psychiatrists are required to take courses on thanatology during training. Medical ethics are also an important area of study, especially on the issue of euthanasia (“right to die”).

There is also a branch of thanatology called music-thanatology which focuses on the use of “music vigils” to help the individual and their family. A vigil consists of one or a team of music-thanatologists who visit the dying person. They play the harp and sing music based on changes that they observe in patient physiology as well as in interpersonal family dynamics. The music tends toward the meditative, and can be very helpful to the patient and others that are present. Often after a vigil, the dying person is more relaxed, less agitated, and is in less pain. Most music-thanatologists are certified by the Music-Thanatology Association International, and they use the initials “CM-Th” to designate certification by this professional organization. Many hospitals and hospices now have professional music-thanatologists on their staff.

Forensic Pathology

        Heart of a 26-year-old man, perforated by a bullet, New York, 1937 Death attributed to homicide.  


Forensic pathology is a branch of pathology concerned with determining the cause of death by examination of a corpse. The autopsy is performed by a coroner or medical examiner usually during the investigation of criminal law cases and civil law cases in some jurisdictions. Coroners and medical examiners are also frequently asked to confirm the identity of a corpse.

The word forensics is derived from the Latin forēnsis meaning forum

Scope of forensic pathology

Forensic pathology is an application of medical jurisprudence. The forensic pathologist:

  • Is a medical doctor who has completed training in anatomical pathology and who has subsequently sub-specialized in forensic pathology. The requirements for becoming a “fully qualified” forensic pathologist varies from country to country. Some of the different requirements are discussed below.
  • Performs autopsies/postmortem examinations to determine the cause of death. The autopsy report contains an opinion about :
    • The pathologic process, injury, or disease that directly results in or initiates a series of events that lead to a person’s death (also called mechanism of death), such as a bullet wound to the head, exsanguination caused by a stab wound, manual or ligature strangulation, myocardial infarction resulting from coronary artery disease, etc.), and
    • The “manner of death”, the circumstances surrounding the cause of death, which in most jurisdictions include:
      • Homicide
      • Accidental
      • Natural
      • Suicide
      • Undetermined
  • The autopsy also provides an opportunity for other issues raised by the death to be addressed, such as the collection of trace evidence or determining the identity of the deceased.
  • Examines and documents wounds and injuries, both at autopsy and occasionally in a clinical setting.
  • Collects and examines tissue specimens under the microscope (histology) in order to identify the presence or absence of natural disease and other microscopic findings such as asbestos bodies in the lungs or gunpowder particles around a gunshot wound.
  • Collects and interprets toxicological analyses on body tissues and fluids to determine the chemical cause of accidental overdoses or deliberate poisonings.
  • Forensic pathologists also work closely with the medico-legal authority for the area concerned with the investigation of sudden and unexpected deaths i.e. the coroner (England and Wales), procurator fiscal (Scotland) or coroner or medical examiner (United States).
  • Serves as an expert witness in courts of law testifying in civil or criminal law cases.

In an autopsy, he/she is often assisted by an autopsy/mortuary technician (sometimes called a diener in the USA).

Forensic physicians, sometimes referred to as ‘forensic medical examiners’ or ‘police surgeons’ (in the UK until recently), are medical doctors trained in the examination of, and provision of medical treatment to, living victims of assault (including sexual assault) and those individuals who find themselves in police custody. Many forensic physicians in the UK practise clinical forensic medicine part-time, whilst they also practise family medicine, or another medical specialty.

In the United Kingdom, Membership of the Royal College of Pathologists is not a prerequisite of appointment as a Coroner’s Medical Expert, i.e. doctors in the UK that are not forensic pathologists or pathologists are allowed to perform medicolegal autopsies, simply because of the vague wording of ‘The Coroners Act’, which merely stipulates a ‘suitably qualified medical practitioner’, i.e. anyone on the GMC Register.

 Investigation of death

Deaths where the known cause and those considered unnatural are investigated. In most jurisdictions this is done by a “forensic pathologist”, coroner, medical examiner, or hybrid medical examiner-coroner offices.


Livor mortis (Latin: livor—”bluish color,” mortis—”of death”), postmortem lividity (Latin: postmortem—”after death”, lividity—”black and blue”), hypostasis(Greek: hupo, meaning “under, beneath”; stasis, meaning “a standing”) or suggillation, is one of the signs of death. Livor mortis is a settling of the blood in the lower (dependent) portion of the body, causing a purplish red discoloration of the skin: when the heart is no longer agitating the blood, heavy red blood cells sink through the serum by action of gravity. Intensity of color depends upon the amount of reduced hemoglobin in the blood. This discoloration does not occur in the areas of the body that are in contact with the ground or another object, as the capillaries are compressed. As the vessel wall become permeable due to decomposition, blood leaks through them and stains the tissue. This is the reason for fixation of hypostasis.

Coroners can use the presence or absence of livor mortis as a means of determining an approximate time of death. The presence of livor mortis is an indication of when it would be futile to begin CPR, or when it is ineffective to continue if it is in progress. It can also be used by forensic investigators to determine whether or not a body has been moved (for instance, if the body is found lying face down but the pooling is present on the deceased’s back, investigators can determine that the body was originally positioned face up).

Livor mortis starts twenty minutes to three hours after death and is congealed in the capillaries in four to five hours. Maximum lividity occurs within 6–12 hours. The blood pools into the interstitial tissues of the body.


petechia (play /pɨˈtiːkiə/; plural petechiae /pɨˈtiːkɪ.iː/) is a small (1-2mm) red or purple spot on the body, caused by a minor hemorrhage (brokencapillary blood vessels).


Petechiae on the face and conjunctiva (eyes) can be a sign of a death by asphyxiation. Petechiae are thought to result from an increase of pressure in the veins of the head and hypoxic damage to endothelia of blood vessels.


Petechiae can be used by police investigators in determining if strangulation has been part of an attack. The documentation of the presence of petechiae on a victim can help police investigators prove the case. Petechiae resulting from strangulation can be relatively tiny and light in color to very bright and pronounced. Petechiae may be seen on the face, in the whites of the eyes or on the inside of the eyelids.


Human decomposition

Observation of the various stages of decomposition can help determine how long a body has been dead.

The first stage is autolysis, more commonly known as self-digestion, during which the body’s cells are destroyed through the action of their own digestive enzymes. However, these enzymes are released into the cells because of the cessation of active processes in the cells, not as an active process. In other words, though autolysis resembles the active process of digestion of nutrients by live cells, the dead cells are not actively digesting themselves as is often claimed in popular literature and as the synonym self-digestion of autolysis seems to imply. As a result of autolysis, liquid is created that gets between the layers of skin and makes the skin peel off. During this stage, flies (when present) start to lay eggs in the openings of the body: eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, open wounds, and other orifices. Hatched larvae (maggots) of blowflies subsequently get under the skin and start to eat the body.

The second stage of decomposition is bloating; bacteria in the gut begin to break down the tissues of the body, releasing gas that accumulates in the intestines, which becomes trapped because of the early collapse of the small intestine. This bloating occurs largely in the abdomen, and sometimes in the mouth and genitals. The tongue may swell. This usually happens in about the second week of decomposition. Gas accumulation and bloating will continue until the body is decomposed sufficiently for the gas to escape.


The third stage is putrefaction. It is the last and longest stage. Putrefaction is where the larger structures of the body break down, and tissues liquefy. The digestive organs, the brain, and lungs are the first to disintegrate. Under normal conditions, the organs are unidentifiable after three weeks. The muscles can be eaten by bacteria or devoured by carnivorous animals. Eventually, sometimes after several years, all that remains is the skeleton.



 “Mortui vivos docent – The dead teach the living.”  

A corpse, also called a cadaver in medical literary and legal usage or when intended for dissection, is a dead human body. The dead body of an non-human animal is called a carcass, but this is also sometimes used to refer to the body of a human.  

Dissecting cadavers: learning anatomy or a rite of passage?

Volume 1, Issue 5 – November 2009 Emmanuelle Godeau, MD, PhD Service médical du Rectorat, Toulouse, France In many medical schools, dissection of cadavers remains an essential component of the curriculum, even though surveys from the past 50 years have shown this is not the most efficient way of learning anatomy. Yet the persistence of dissections suggests a different role: a rite of passage and creating an esprit de corps for the profession. Our anthropological studies, in which one hundred medical students and doctors from France, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States were interviewed, support this thesis.

An ambiguous necessity

When medical students anticipate their first dissection, they vacillate between anxiety, boasting, fear, and excitement. This echoes the ambivalent memories of older doctors, who often reminisced that “one can’t see anything.” Many students and experienced doctors have questioned the utility of dissections. A student from Italy remarked, “The general impression was that it was pointless.” An American pathologist said: “Much of the traditional anatomy curriculum is irrelevant to medical practice and might easily be eliminated.” Still, all doctors recall those sessions, and generally associate them so strongly with “tradition” and “custom,” that not following them would pose the risk of never becoming a doctor: “I wanted to see, because one has to go and see,” or as an American student said, “Everyone correlates being a doctor with the study of anatomy”. This necessity, vaguely felt by students and consistent with the claims of professors, leads us to interpret dissection exercises as the required setting of a specific experience, the place and time to acquire the knowledge that “builds the doctor.” Indeed, in the United States, anatomy professors insist that dissections are necessary for future doctors and specifically introduce them as ”rights of passage”  following recommendations derived from early teachings about anatomy in the fourteenth century, with the same paradoxes and contradictions.

“The anatomy lesson of Doctor Pieter Paaw in Leyden, in 1616″. Engraving by Andries Stock from J. de Gheyn (Picture from the French National Library)

Beyond this necessity, the importance placed on practical anatomy varies across countries. In Italy, dissections have become optional, and sometimes students just see a film. In Lund, Sweden, dissections have been replaced by work at a computer with software that creates three-dimensional views of the body, simulating dissections. In Hannover, Germany, students work by anatomical zones studied from clinical examination, radiology, pathology … to dissections. In the US, medical students historically have had to perform dissections in small groups in their first year, often for a full semester. Nowadays, time spent in dissections seems to be shortening and even approaching disappearance globally, but the best students are encouraged to dissect outside of the regular curriculum. In Toulouse, France, dissections are still compulsory, graded and assessed by oral exams. However, each student does not have to dissect, as was the case until the 1970s.

From corpse to “anatomy”

During their first dissections, students go through an ordeal, physical and mental, which is intrinsic to their apprenticeship. Now as in the Middle Ages, one has to learn to overcome the offense made to their senses. The first offended sense is smell. In Oman, over 90% of students reported being upset by the smells. Sight is the second tortured sense, because of the color and global aspect of the corpses. Not many students will actually touch them, those who dare will insist: the corpses have nothing in common with human bodies. The confrontation of corpses leads students to manipulate them in ways consistent with the technical requirements of dissections, but that also changes these worrying bodies into “anatomies,” emblematic of the knowledge to be learned in lab work. A new code of perception and this new setting help students to distance themselves from their emotions. Meanwhile, using un-academic methods, they begin to professionalize their perceptions and ways of dealing with nakedness and death, also essential in becoming a doctor. To protect themselves from the musty or decomposing smell of the corpses, they use many methods: perfumed handkerchiefs, scarves, turtle necks pulled over the nose, or, in England, Vicks VapoRub®. These have often now replaced tobacco smoking as a means of masking offensive smells. Thus, clouds of smoke or perfume allowed the students to submit corpses to a gradual metamorphosis: their repulsive materiality is replaced by waxwork dummies like those found in anatomical museums, meeting an image suggested by an English student in the 1940s about the anatomy lab : “A vast and sinister green-house growing waxen bodies in rows”. A less common form of protection is fainting: “we were all obsessed by this idea: not to faint.” Sinclair, an American sociologist that studied medical apprenticeship in the late 80’s, notes that one of the first questions freshmen ask older medical students is, “Do people faint in the dissection room?”. American students interviewed by Segal , an anthropologist that worked on medical students from the East coast in the 80’s, were more explicit: what they fear in fainting is that others might doubt their capacity to become doctors, showing how early the medical model is internalized. An interviewed Italian student said: “during dissections, the professor was judging their reactions in front of a cadaver and this was some kind of an ordeal.” Other techniques are used to reify the corpses, such as dividing up of the body. This can be done virtually (to stand behind fellow students, to cover the rest of the corpse with cloth as during operations); theoretically (to imagine sketches, to divide the body in regions, organs, systems…); or actually (to dissect a zone). Yet that process of reification meets resistance: some body parts are not easily “anatomizable”: faces and hands are usually hidden during dissections. The manipulations of dead bodies to change them into “anatomies” serve the objectives of practical education. However, other images follow the breaking of the humanity of those beings and lead students into territory not directly related to the acquisition of medical competencies. The transformation of corpses into meat, shown through slang words meaning “meat” used to name them in France, allows students to reify them, to dehumanize them through an animalization that legitimates or at least excuses the violence done to them. References to a symbolic anthropophagy are not rare either, in gestures, comments, or practical jokes. For example, this scene, observed at the end of a dissection in Toulouse: Surrounded by other medical students, two students fought for the prerogative to hold the scalpel and cut the body. “Who wants some liver? Bon appétit. Come see the liver! It looks like foie gras (goose liver pâté)…” Suddenly, one of them, dissecting pliers in one hand, grabs the other’s surgical knife with his other hand, and handling his tools like macabre cutlery, leans towards the open thorax with a hungry look. It seems that breaking the taboo of opening the human body stimulates thoughts about violating the taboo of cannibalism, with one infamy bringing on the other. Such assimilation can directly affect the students, especially in food revulsion: “The first time, I was not able to eat stew for a while for long!” A young English doctor confided that she had dreams where she was eating the flesh of the corpse she was currently dissecting. About five centuries earlier, after a week of dissection, Thomas Platter, a middle-age Dutch medical student who went around France and Europe with his brother during his medical studies, wrote in his diary that he had dreamt he had eaten human flesh and had woken up in the middle of the night to vomit. On both sides of the Atlantic, stories are told about lay people or students unwittingly eating pieces of corpses thrown in the soup by other students. As a difficult victory over their disgust, the so called “meat fights” stories, circulated in France until the middle of the XXth century, in which students depict themselves or others “cutting the meat and throwing it at each other” during dissections, are the first spectacular evidence of the acquisition of manners that establish belonging to the medical profession, through a combination of disgust and liberating laugh. Yet, vast differences are seen in how students engage in a similar experience. From the first dissections onward, around the table, a concentric organization is created, based on a hierarchy among actors, giving all the opportunity to participate in the collective ordeal. Those in the center who go too far and those in the rear who criticize others break implicit rules, yet participate in the experience. Female students have tended to be more passive and end up being the target of jokes–mostly obscene—made by their male counterparts, who view the dissections as a challenge and an opportunity to show-off. In a vast corpus of “cadaver stories” collected in the 80’s by an American anthropologist, Hafferty, some stories feature students cutting the penis of one cadaver to put it in another cadaver’s vagina, to shock female students, but in the more recent accounts, women play a more active role.

The anatomy lesson

This eruption and performance of violence, obscenity, and blasphemy do not capture all we observe during dissections. Opposed to such transgressions, paradoxically, other gestures and behaviors seem similarly necessary, echoing the paradox and ambivalence of those necessary as well as un-useful dissections. In France, the first dissection is not preceded by official discourses on the respect of the sacred status of the dead, as in Italy or the US. Students from Toulouse follow implicit rules that organize and limit even behaviors that seem uncontrolled. The first ones to criticize the violent behavior occasionally displayed by their classmates are those for whom dissections were hard to stand: “I am shocked because no respect is shown to Death.” Students perceive the need to limit what can from what cannot be done, the licit from the illicit. Many behaviors may be observed during dissections that help define what students mean by respect. One turns around to sneeze, one says “sorry” when touching a corpse by chance, and one whispers next to corpses. Teachers and students use the word “patient” or “sick person” instead of corpse, and American students call themselves doctors and say “surgery” instead of “dissection”. The stillness of those lying bodies, tucked in their shrouds with eyes closed, turns those scary beings into quiet sleepers. Inviting a group of students to enter the lab, an assistant joked: “don’t worry, I’ve given them a sleeping pill!” To respect corpses is first to admit their irreducible humanity. This is done throughout a series of queries that aim to give them a social identity. Students want to know age, medical history, causes of death, and life stories of their “patients.” Some American teachers recommend providing such information to (re)personalize the corpse and help students to remember that those people have lived before. To make “their” dead more familiar, some US students give the cadaver a name, or even carve them with their initials. In a medical school in Chicago, students have to write a biographic piece about the cadaver they are dissecting. Identity can be given back more spontaneously yet more disturbingly through recognition. For example in Toulouse, two students said they believed they recognized their own grandparents. American students tell stories about removing the face cloth from a corpse and realizing with horror that it is someone from their immediate family. This recovered humanity raises questions about the students’ own identity. If in corpses you see your own ancestors, does that not imply you belong to the same kind and same destiny? This helps to understand the uneasiness of students about dissecting bodies of young people. Though young corpses are more interesting to dissect, identification with them would be too close for comfort. This may also help explain the disinclination of medical students to donate their bodies to science. In the corridors of the lab, I saw a worried male student trying to make a female student smell his neck just after his first dissection. This smell is the first characteristic of the corpse. He or she who breathes it becomes impregnated with it: “I have a friend who, afterwards, always smelt his hands…” Smell is the first evidence of the transformation of the students. Medical books on occupational disease in the nineteenth century describe the sweat, urine and feces of anatomists as being impregnated with putrid miasmas that were seen as a main danger for doctors, together with poisonous infections that killed many of them. The ordeal of intimacy with corpses forces students to see death, to overcome it more easily, but also to skim it, to face its danger. Today, when antiseptics and antibiotics help control the risks of septicaemia, teachers still give the same recommendations: “Be careful, don’t cut yourselves!” pompously changed by this impressed student: “With the slightest cut, you’re dead!” Confronted with those threatening beings, the risk is to pass on deaths’ side. Pushing the lab door is passing into the other world, so as to directly experience its properties. As a physician interviewed about dissection said: “one can carry on medical studies only when one has accepted one’s own death. That is when one has visualized it.” The ordeal is to be stronger than the horror of the corpses who, in traditional representation, often reach out to bring the living along with them. One young French student interviewed in Toulouse repeated a horrific story about students who put a leg from a cadaver in the bed of a friend who awoke and died of shock. A psychiatrist reported 40 years later having had repeated nightmares about dissections: “I am one of those who almost gave up medicine because of the corpses! I still clearly remember this dream. The corpses were after me. I would jump through windows, run, go up the stairs, and they were after me. They wanted to get me. I had this dream many times, I had been deeply shocked.” One can better understand those “meat fights” and other cannibalistic dramatizations as a means of incorporating death; somehow, through these “rituals,” students obtain the double power of both coming back different to the world of the living and being better able to cure those whom illness takes temporarily into the other world.

Consecrations and testimonies

Even if invisible and symbolic, a transformation is felt by those who undergo it. About his first dissection in the 1960s, a French surgeon said, “I see people walking outside, and I told myself: actually, you are not one of them, they are lay people, you are a scholar. They will never understand what you do. You belong to another world, and you know things they’ll never know.” In other words, anatomical knowledge, throughout the dissection experience, has turn him into an “initiated.” And as all initiated do, medical students, proud to have overcome this first ordeal, want to show their new status. Family, friends and younger students have to listen to terrible stories, preferably during meals. But while doing this, medical students just act as is expected by the rest of society, which perceives them to be keen on dissecting corpses for hours. These stories that force others to undergo the same ordeal are not the only consecration of this new knowledge. In the 1960s, in Toulouse (France), a professional photographer came to take pictures in the anatomy lab around a corpse, as he would do for school classes and other organized social events—such pictures can be found since the XIXth century. The created image ceremonially honored this transition. The tradition vanished, yet I was given similar pictures from the late 1970s—but informal, provocative pictures, taken by a student during dissections. The woman who showed them to me laughed when telling me they were exposed in her student room, just for fun; like the professional photos, this woman’s photos played the same role as provocative stories: a proof of undergoing successful transformation.


Through dissection, contemporary medical schools still provide a paradoxical experience through which students obtain knowledge about death in a manner that is quite unusual for modern medicine. The same duality existed during the Renaissance. The frontispiece of anatomy books from the time of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) is divided into two parts: below, the corpse, which is being dissected by professors and students and is surrounded by a crowd trying to see; and, above, the skeleton with the scythe. Thus, in a time where it seemed the anatomy lesson was de-ritualized to become a way to have access to positive knowledge good for all, a symbolic dimension was reintroduced: death, personalized by its skeleton and accessories. Since the end of the eighteenth century, dissections have become the privilege of medical doctors, their first ordeal, with a symbolic efficacy that has never failed. In the customary logic that drives this moment, scientific and academic logic is undermined: so to make the humanity of the corpses disappear, the students try to see only an anatomy, a wax body, or even some abstract sketches. One can hypothesize that this superposition of the academic and customary logic contributes to the professionalization of the senses, opened by the paradigmatic experience of dissection. Behind the doors of the anatomy lab, the ordeal of dissection separates forever those who will become doctors from those who will not, those who have managed to control their senses from those who did not succeed, those who have overcome the horror of death from those who have not been confronted with it and never will be, at least not as a doctor.

Quote of The Day

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.” 
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

 “You only live twice:
Once when you’re born
And once when you look death in the face.” 
― Ian Fleming, 


Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

— John Donne, from Holy Sonnet X (also called “Death, Be Not Proud”)