AskDefine | Define adipocere

User Contributed Dictionary



From adipo- + Latin cera


  • /ˈædɪpoˌsiə(r)/ or /ˈædəpoˌsiə(r)/
  • /"

Extensive Definition

Adipocere or grave wax or mortuary wax is the insoluble residue of fatty acids from pre-existing fats contained in decomposing material such as a human cadaver. It is formed by the slow hydrolysis of fats in wet ground and can occur in both embalmed and untreated bodies. It is generally believed to have first been discovered by the Frenchman Fourcroy in the 18th century; however, Sir Thomas Browne describes this substance in his discourse, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial of 1658:
''"In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap: wherof part remaineth with us."''
In essence, in this process the usual dissolution of putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues. This allows some estimation of body shape and facial features, and injuries are often well-preserved.
Adipocere inhibits the growth of bacteria, and can go some way to protecting a corpse against decomposition. It begins to form within about a month of death, and can persist on the remains for centuries. Since it forms through hydrolysis, it does so more readily in humid environments or even underwater. An exposed body is unlikely to form deposits of adipocere. The process of adipocere formation is also known as saponification.
The Mütter Museum possesses the Soap Lady, the body of an extremely obese woman, which was almost entirely saponified.


  • J.S.Finch. A Doctor's life of Science and Faith. Princeton 1950
  • C.A.Patrides, ed. Sir Thomas Browne The Major Works. Penguin 1977

External links

  • Adipocere - A collection of resources on soap mummies and adipocere formation.
adipocere in German: Adipocire
adipocere in Indonesian: Adiposera
adipocere in Dutch: Adipocire
adipocere in Japanese: 死蝋
adipocere in Swedish: Likvax
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