A couple of friends were fishing in lake in Switzerland in 2011 when they noticed what they believed to be a dead animal floating in the lake. When the approached they saw that the figure was covered in a white waxy substance that had somehow preserved the body. It wasn’t until experts examined the body that they determined that it was, in fact, human. The realization that it was human came as a huge surprise but even more stunning was that the corpse was over three hundred years old.
Turns out that the strange waxy substance they examined is created by the body and there are several reported cases of bodies being discovered in this condition. Most of the time bodies decompose when they are buried; oxygen and soil break down the tissues and bones over decades until there is not much left. But if a body is buried where there is no oxygen, or a severe lack thereof, it will not decompose in the normal way.
When water and fat come into contact a process called hydrolysis begins; a process where the fat molecules are separated and rejoined. Hydrogen is also at work fusing the fat together turning it into a shell like exterior. This entire process is also known as saponification– the conversion of fatty acids into “soap.” If you’ve seen fight club you are familiar with the fact that fat can be turned into soap.
In the absence of other bacteria to break down the body, this phenomenon forms what is known as “grave soap” on the bodies. Essentially this process creates an outer shell for the body where other tissues and bones are preserved. It is very difficult to determine the age and sex of a body that is found in this condition, as one might imagine.
In the case of the Swedish lake body, examiners had to remove pieces of the “wax” or “soap” to be able to view the pelvic bones to determine the gender. It was an adult male.