By Lisa Flowers
The soul may go on forever, but a body, once it’s a corpse, is perpetually a corpse. Yes? Not necessarily. Or at least not when said cadaver is in the hands of doctor Hernández Cárdenas of Juarez. “Reviving” Mexico’s unidentified corpses – a process otherwise known as corpse reinvigoration, or rehydrating the dead – is Cárdenas’s specialty.
Said resurrection method works like this: corpses are submerged in tanks filled with a special solution until they bloat back up into a (somewhat) recognizable shape. Forensic experts have long used glycerin injections to re-bloat fingers for the purpose of obtaining prints, but Cárdenas is the first person to successfully attempt full-body re-plumping.
Read on to find out more than you ever wanted to know (but probably can’t resist wanting to know) about this particularly grotesque system of de-mummification.
Cárdenas’s revolutionary tactic is partially – at least according to Motherboard – a form of time travel. The concept is to “flip [the] body from a shrunken mummy to something much closer to a freshly-deceased sack of flesh and bone.”
Since there are seven stages of decomposition (the last one essentially being mummification) the goal is to return the body to an earlier stage, one where the gasses and liquids that cause bloating are still doing their thing. Macabre? Of course. However, the technique is particularly useful when it comes to identifying remains found in desert climates, which tend to mummify corpses at lightning speed.
Office hot tubs: they’re not just a swanky staff perk. In Cárdenas’s lab, the tub functions as a corpse-rehydration vessel that’s affectionately known as “the jacuzzi.” One typical immersion, as chronicled by the New York Times, went like this:
“Cárdenas [took] a scorched-looking, decomposed head and five stiff, bloated hands and gently submerged them in his secret solution. After they soak for three days, he said, any scars, lesions or birthmarks the victim might have had will reappear … they did. The putrid head looked human again, with full lips, large pores and a massive bruise on the forehead. The hands had recovered their identifying prints.”
An article in Motherboard expounds on the procedure, explaining that the tank contains “about 60 gallons’ worth of an unknown chemical formula – Hernández Cárdenas’s secret sauce.” Nevertheless, experts are catching on: the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, AZ, has begun to utilize Cárdenas’s technique in their own corpse-identification procedures. And forensic pathologist Dr. Bruce Anderson, who works there, will tell you that the key ingredient is sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as lye.
Think that rehydrating a corpse is just about dunking it in secret sauce and leaving it be until it reconfigures itself? Think again. In order to ensure even-rehydration, a corpse must be rotated every 8 to 12 hours. In other words, the whole process has much in common with the refined techniques of a gourmet chef: it’s crucial to ensure that the body is evenly “basted.”
Cárdenas’s technique may be revolutionary, but he’s also not the first person to arrive at his method. As stated, forensic experts have been rehydrating fingers in order to recover prints for a long time now; and it seems that inventors Kimberly Wright and Dean Bertram of the University Of Southern Mississippi have a patent on a procedure that’s quite similar to Cárdenas’s. Said system:
“Relates to a process for the rehydration of tissues, comprising obtaining a tissue sample, heating a solution of tissue enhancing solution that does not contain flammable or toxic fluids or compounds to 35-70° C., exposing the tissue to the warm solution, and waiting for a period of time for the tissue to rehydrate and the ridge line details to be returned substantially to normal.” Stiff competition, indeed.
As the old saying goes, one can sometimes have too much of a good thing. Especially when one is working with a lye (aka, sodium hydroxide) solution, the substance rumored to be Cárdenas’s secret ingredient. As Motherboard puts it, the
liquid will definitely “plump up a finger or hand to a certain point,” but if the proverbial fowl is left to marinate too long, it will also “dissolve it away entirely.” A delicate balance indeed, as a non-existent corpse is even harder to work with than a mummified one.
In Ciudad Juarez, murder is a real, and tragic, epidemic. And its byproduct is a vast number of unidentified corpses. The Panteon Municipal San Rafael, a very large mass grave on the Juarez’s outskirts, is said to house about 5,000 unidentified bodies. Though some of these deceased individuals have been disinterred and successfully identified by Cárdenas and other officials, many of them remain perpetually lost to obscurity.
Tattoos and other distinguishing marks are, of course, key when it comes to identifying remains. And that’s a big part of where the usefulness of re-plumping bodies comes in. This anecdote about a man whose newly-rehydrated tattoos – one of which read “sad memories” – is a poignant case in point. But at least it ended in closure.
Corpse-rehydration isn’t the only way to solve a murder mystery. Indeed, forensic technology has evolved to increasingly sophisticated levels, especially in recent years, and it gets more intricate and nuanced every day. State-of-the-art methods involving finger prints, teeth analysis, DNA, and birthmarks are just a few of the many other ways experts are using to ID the dead.
Cover photo: Photo: Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter/Hammer Film Productions