Answering 7 Years of Your Stinky Google Searches

Answering 7 Years of Your Stinky Google Searches The Death Scent Project with Nuri McBride


 

A website’s backend is a dull and utilitarian space, mine included. The one exception is my search term results. Every time I check them, they are filled with some of the weirdest and most wonderful things folks have ever shouted into the internet. I’m so happy that which corpse flower is the best, and did they cut Richard the Lionheart’s heart out and fill it with flowers, brought you to my particular corner of the web. Welcome weirdos!

However, I’ve noticed over the years that specific questions are repeatedly leading people to my site that aren’t really answered within its pages. So as part of our 7th anniversary, I decided to answer the most frequently queried Google searches that aren’t specifically answered on the site, and yes, there will be rotting pumpkins and ghost sex!


Does Bubonic Plague smell?

Sort of. The infection itself is odourless. You can’t detect it in the air, but patients infected with the plague were noted for having an odour. This was primarily due to the buboes (swollen infected lymph nodes) rupturing as the infection progressed. The wounds would leak pus and lymphatic fluid, gangrene would set in, and then the rupture site would become necrotic. That gave off a strong odour of rotting flesh.

As you can imagine, this was very upsetting for everyone involved, least of all the patients. This odour of rot was part of the justification for the use of Miasmic medicine in treating the plague in the Middle Ages. They thought particles of rot called miasmata were floating around in the air. As you breathed them in, they entered your body and rotted you from the inside out. The employment of aromatic prophylactics was supposed to occupy the nose and keep the miasmata from getting in. It did not work.


How do I give myself Phantosmia?

For the love of God, don’t try! Phantosmia is the phenomenon of experiencing phantom smells that are not present in the environment. It seems neat; who wouldn’t want to hot-wire their brain to smell roses whenever you wanted. Two things, firstly, Phantosmia is triggered by three pathological pathways A. Neurological disorders like Parkinson’s or brain tumours, B. Injury to the olfactory system, and C. Mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and psychosis. None of these sound like a fun time.

Secondly, while technically, Phantosmia can present with any odour, its most common presentation is Cacosmia. Cacosmia is a pervasive foul phantom odour. Burning tires, sewage or rotten food are the common presentations. Imagine waking up one morning and you smell nothing but burning tires all day with no respite? It’s so terrible some sufferers elect to have their olfactory bulbs surgically removed. For them, it is better to smell nothing than to live in an olfactory hellscape.

So while Phantosmia sounds fantastic on the surface, you don’t want this.


Can you die from smelling a dead body?

No. The typical scent of decomposition is unpleasant but not threatening to your health. Remember the phrase dosis sola facit venenum (only the dose makes the poison). The organic compounds Cadaverine and Putrescine are the main actors in the smell of decomposition. These compounds are found widely in nature, and your own living body produces them. As such, we have a high tolerance for them, especially for the microscopic amount we are sensing in olfaction. The levels of Cadaverine and Putrescine that would need to be present in the air to reach the level of airborne toxicity are astronomical. So no, the scent of death can’t hurt you.

What the scent of decomp does is cause a strong limbic response in humans. This odour puts us on high alert, suppresses our appetite, and disgusts us. These are all excellent instincts that have surely kept humanity alive in the past. However, the odour itself only indicates that danger may be around, but it is not dangerous. What you are smelling is the natural process of proteins breaking down in the body. It can be profoundly unpleasant and make you throw up, but just smelling decomp won’t harm you. If a body is deep in decomposition in a closed space, the amount of airborne particulate can trigger an asthma attack in vulnerable people. In reality, I’ve only seen this happen once with a co-worker when we removed a body from a bathtub in a small bathroom, which had been there for several days. But how often is that going to happen for the average person?

I’ve met many people who fear the smell of death through my work in death care. They are even afraid to see their dead relatives for fear of being harmed by the odour. I remind them that I’ve been preparing the dead for 17 years, most of the time without PPR, and I am fine. I faced a far more significant risk to my lung health working in mortuary spaces where I was frequently exposed to airborne formaldehyde particulate.

Also, just because a person is dead doesn’t automatically mean they smell. Odour is the strongest during the putrefaction stage of decomposition for apparent reasons. The recently deceased and dry remains may have no or low odour. For the most part, you won’t be exposed to bodies in that state unless you work in death care or are unfortunate enough to stumble upon a grislily scene while hiking.


Can I eat an Egyptian mummy, and what are the health benefits?

You CAN, technically, physically eat a mummy, but should you? No. Did people use to eat mummies? Oh ya, you betcha!

It is a long tale involving zany hijinks like mistranslating the word for bitumen, but, long story short, starting in the Early Modern period, European pharmacopoeias started listing mummia (powdered mummified human remains) as a powerful pharmakon for a host of illnesses. The idea was that these ancient dead bodies either had a special kind of vitalism that preserved them or were subject to potent ancient Egyptian ministrations, maybe both! It was thought that consuming these remains would heal illnesses and extend life. People ate mummies, drank them, applied them on their skin in poultices, and even burned them as medical incense. When Napoléon invaded Egypt and kicked off Egyptomania in Europe, it only got worse. Bodies were looted left and right, sold like kindling to be ground up for mummy powder in Europe. It isn’t clear how many ancient bodies were destroyed this way, but it has to be in the thousands.

Was it a cure-all that made its consumers immortal? No. There is no medical benefit found in consuming ancient remains. In fact, recently dead bodies would sometimes be desiccated to pass them off as ancient mummies. There are multiple 18th-century reports of people sickened after consuming false mummia. Most likely, the intestines were not removed, and the patient consumed a faecal-born illness like Cholera from the remains.

Also, don’t be a jerk and eat other people’s ancestors for fun. It is exceedingly rude.


Can you die from smelling the inside of a tomb?

No, again dosis sola facit venenum. An odour may give you a clue about a particular environmental health risk if that risk is aromatic, but aroma itself isn’t risky. I’m sure a tomb that hasn’t been opened in a thousand years might smell musty and dank, but I don’t think odour toxicity would be a concern. Health-wise, I would worry more about mould exposure, particulate kicked up from excavation and perhaps trapped pockets of gas that might present a health risk. While those hazards can have an odour, they can also be scentless.


Was Tapputi Egyptian? 

No. Tapputi-Belet-ekallim was Assyrian. I can’t tell you how often I get this, and I don’t know why.


Why do I smell rotting meat in perfume?

Hmm, this could be a few things. It may mean that you didn’t care for a perfume or there was a material within it that you found disagreeable. However, smelling the wrong thing when met with olfactory stimuli is a form of parosmia and can indicate several olfactory and neurological conditions. Often people will notice a beloved food or drink will suddenly smell terrible. So if perfume suddenly smells like rotting meat, go see your doctor.


Is it Christian to pray with copal?

Yup, it’s cool. While the Catholic church had a ban on copal’s use in church services during the early colonial period in Mexico, that was lifted over a hundred years ago. Frankincense and myrrh still make up the bulk of church incense, but sometimes copal is used too. Though it is becoming much more common for Catholic services to be conducted without any incense at all.


What perfume should I wear to have sex with a ghost?

This is outside my pay grade, but I will not yuck your yum. This pandemic has been brutal on us all, and many people out here on these apps are acting foolish. As long as it’s consensual, go get that ghost D, darling. Wear your favourite perfume. If he is both immaterial and picky about fragrance, he doesn’t deserve your corporeal delights.


Why do I love the smell of rotting pumpkins?

Humans enjoy a wide variety of odours, even ones seen as taboo. You’re not weird for being attracted to counterintuitive smells. Rotting produce often creates a sweet overripe smell because sugars are broken down by mould and bacteria. A rotting pumpkin will also release all kinds of volatile organic compounds as it is metabolised. A whole bunch of aldehydes, esters,  lactones and terpenoids are being released into the air, and you are picking up on some that you enjoy. There are really only a few culprits that spoil it for the others, mainly Hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs), Methanethiol (rotten cabbage), and Dimethyl disulfide (rotten garlic). Once those components saturate the mixture, it will become unbearable, but until then, the pumpkin will have a sweet overripeness that may not smell good, necessarily, but isn’t unpleasant.


Can I make a whale give me ambergris?

My dear sibling in fragrance, an adult male sperm whale, weighs 41,000 kg, and the female comes in at a dainty 14,000 kg. You cannot MAKE these behemoths do anything. Also, the sheer chance and alchemy of ambergris’ creation is part of the fun. A whale has to eat an irritant like a squid beak, have it go through its digestive tract and be globed on with a special fatty secretion that coats it and helps the irritant pass through the digestive tract. While most whale poo sinks, the buoyancy of the fatty secretion will cause it to rise to the surface. But by all accounts, this is just whale poo and will smell awful. Ambergris must cure in the ocean for months, if not years before it has mellowed into wonderful marine warmth. So, no, you can’t force a sperm whale to poop, and you wouldn’t want to.


Is it true that the history of corsages was to be able to smell flowers instead of the horseshit that was in the streets?

Not really, but sort of. Corsages, poesies, nosegays, bouquets, garlands and sweet bags are all commonly prepared aromatics in many European cultures. These were often made to adorn the body and house during celebrations, providing visual and aromatic adornment. People like nice things and like being fancy. Before highly processed prepared aromatics like incense and perfume were widely available, ordinary people mostly had herbs and flowers to scent and adorn themselves. Now, people would also use these aromatics to block foul odours and as a prophylactic against illness which was thought to emanate from offensive odours. However, these cultural artefacts didn’t start as odour blockers and have just as robust a history as a form of adornment.


Can you show me some extraordinary and unusual flowers from Indonesia?

I would love to. There is no more extraordinary flower on this planet than the Rafflesia Arnoldii. I adore it. I wish I could grow it. It has everything. It smells like rotting hamburger meat. It’s huge. It counts elephants and mice among its pollinators. It is a parasitic plant that burrows into the roots of another plant, and then these purple bulbs sprout out like demonic cabbages before unfurling into a giant red bloom. Indonesia has three national flowers, the Moon Orchid, Jasmin Sambac, and Rafflesia Arnoldii. Moon Orchids and Jasmin Sambac are great, but would I hike 3 hours into a jungle to see them? But I did for Rafflesia Arnoldii. Hell, these flowers inspired a Pokemon. If you want extraordinary and unusual, Rafflesia has it in spades.


How to trick a cadaver dog into not smelling a dead body with household products?

Nope, I’m not aiding in your murder there, bucko; you are on your own with that one. Stop asking; it is creepy.