What Is Post-Mortem Hyperthermia?


Common sense teaches us that bodies are supposed to cool down after death. In reality, this is not always the case, or so some reports would like you to believe.

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One reported case of post-mortem hyperthermia comes to us from the Czech Republic. A 69-year old patient passed away fromheart disease. As the nurses began to prep the patient’s body for the autopsy, they noticed that it was warm. Approximately one hour after death, the registered body temperature was 104 degrees Fahrenheit. After cooling the body with ice packs it reached a temperature one would come to expect from a corpse.

Post-mortem hyperthermia is a fairly known phenomenon among researchers, but there has not been a lot of research on it, so the general population is mostly unaware of it.

The normal working temperature of the human body is somewhere around 98-99 degrees Fahrenheit. The body achieves this temperature during the process of cells breaking down food. When a person dies and the cells within the body do not use food and oxygen to digest food, the cells usually stop producing heat. During this time, the body starts cooling down over the next few hours. As we all saw in the movies, a known practice of crime investigators is to use body temperature to estimate when the person passed away. This method is not always accurate and there are a lot of factors that can affect the end results.

What Do the Scientists Say?

Some of the first cases ever registered date back to the 19th century, when a British Forces physician by the name of John Davey registered unusually high body temperatures when examining bodies of British soldiers that passed away in Malta. In some cases, the body temperature even rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. But, as noted by Davey himself, that could all have been down to the warm climate in Malta.

More recently, Peter Noble, a microbiologist from Alabama State University, delved a little deeper into the matter. He claims that the studies on this topic have not been substantial enough and that we need more data and thorough testing before we can come to a conclusion. The main issue he has with the cases that have been reported thus far is that there was little information given about the accuracy of the instruments used to perform the measuring, the temperature in the room, or whether the bodies were clothed or not.

As for the case in the Czech Republic, Noble says that the issue is that the body temperature was measured at the armpit and not rectally (the most accurate way to measure the core body temperature).

If post-mortem hyperthermia is indeed a thing, it could have a negative effect on forensic investigations.This is more of an issue in Europe than in America since European investigators rely on body temperature more often than their American counterparts. The reasoning behind this is that a lot of variables can influence the result in some way. Factors like fat density in the deceased, room temperature, and moisture all have to be taken into consideration when performing investigations such as this.

A much more accurate way of measuring the estimated time of death would be to check muscle stiffness, putrefaction,and insect colonization.

Still a Mystery

Even today, the post-mortem hyperthermia phenomenon remains a mystery. The main reason for this is that the cases are few and far between. There are many additional factors that could have an effect on post-mortem body temperature. They range from brain trauma, intoxication, drug use, and heart disease to name a few.

One option, according to Noble, could be that the person affected would be in the middle of running when their heart stops. Blood circulation stops, the heat in their muscles have no way of exiting the body and this, in turn, cause the boy to raise its core temperature temporarily. Also, drugs that are used to regulate blood flow could have an effect.

Noble goes on to explain that we can pretty safely assume that the bacteria involved in body decomposition would not cause post-mortem hyperthermia because the immune system is still functional, even 24 hours after death.

But, the bacteria in our gut could continue to break down food after we pass away, which in turn could generate some heat. Cells in your body do not stop metabolizing all at once. As carbon dioxide builds up inside the body, the acid starts to break down cells in a process known as autolysis, or in layman’s terms, self-digestion. In theory, this process could also generate heat.

Closeup of dead woman lying in mortuary

The biggest question is, with all these possibilities for it to occur, why is post-mortem hyperthermia so rare?Victor Weedn, a forensic pathologist at George Washington University, thinks most of these questions will remain unanswered for a long time because the support for research such as this is negligible. Until there is a bigger focus on forensic science research in general, we will not be any closer to getting an answer to any of these questions.

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