Skip to main content

Forums » RP Discussion » Writing death & decay

Hello lovelies!

I'm dusting my skull collection today and had a thought: since I've spent so much time working around death and decay, maybe my niche knowledge can be useful to you writerly-types.

My background


- I collect bones and other oddities as a hobby; some of them are bought and some are specimens I've procured and prepped myself
- My interest in these things is scientific and aesthetic. It's not intended to be spooky or upsetting. I have the utmost respect for the natural world
- I work in museums! My goal is to someday work professionally with natural history collections
- I grew up in a backwoods farming community with hunters, fishers, and wildlife rehabilitators (ie; I've been surrounded by wildlife and animal death my whole life)

So, I guess this is an FAQ. What's the decomposition process? How long does it take? What kind of smells, textures, and sights go along with it? How do you prep dry vs wet specimens? What is gravewax? Do I have reference pictures of different types of skulls? (yes)

Ask away! Or don't, and enjoy your day.

tumblr_psp3hit6KF1qza1qzo1_500.gif
(artist)

Remove this ad

i would like to ask what you work with in the museums and also what sparked your interest in bones, skulls, etc.? c:
Sunflower wrote:
i would like to ask what you work with in the museums and also what sparked your interest in bones, skulls, etc.? c:
So far I've mostly worked with general history collections. Every facility has a time period or geographic location they focus on, but that still leaves a lot of room for interpretation re: what can be included in the collection. I've also worked in an art gallery with oils, mixed media, ceramics, etc.

Ah, nothing fancy. Being interested in objects from nature + living in a rural area = inevitable hoard of bones and shiny rocks.
(I just think they're neat lmao)
We've been co-existing on this site at a distance for a while and I think I happened to glance past something you said about bones a few years ago now that I just jived so hard with that it was one part of what reinvigorated this hype I had for, like, bones and the like. That being said, can you tell me about basically the question you set up for us ffdfdgdfg -
What's the decomposition process like? What are the kinds of textures, smells and sights go with it? Could you tell me much about how dying in difference places might affect de-comp?
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
We've been co-existing on this site at a distance for a while and I think I happened to glance past something you said about bones a few years ago now that I just jived so hard with that it was one part of what reinvigorated this hype I had for, like, bones and the like. That being said, can you tell me about basically the question you set up for us ffdfdgdfg -
What's the decomposition process like? What are the kinds of textures, smells and sights go with it? Could you tell me much about how dying in difference places might affect de-comp?
welcome to bones

There's five stages of decomposition, which I'll describe in a tag so nobody gets grossed out

1. fresh; rigor mortis occurs about six hours after death
2. bloat; all the little microbes have a party and the resulting gases cause the body to swell
3. active decay; pressure causes the carcass to purge its fluids and by this point there's probably a lot of insects and other organisms feeding on it
4. advanced decay; decomp slows down because all the good stuff has been eaten. The grass around the carcass tends to die off due to the huge increase in nitrogen
5. remains; now you have bones, maybe some old fur or mummified skin

Decomp time is highly variable depending on your climate. For example, I live in Southern Ontario (along with most of Canada's population lmao). Because of all our lakes we tend to have very humid summers, which accelerates decomposition-- I buried a fully-fleshed doe head and she was bones in less than a year. Something like that would usually take 2 - 3.

Animals that decompose above-ground will be exposed to the elements. This can lead to sun-bleaching and cracking/drying over time. Something that dies in a completely enclosed area (say, a shed) will just dry out and mummify. Death in water accelerates the process-- I use water to my advantage all the time.

Some sensory stuff (no pictures)

- for the most part, lightly decaying matter just smells like some meat that's gone bad in your fridge
- certain animals have different smells; I've been told foxes are the worst but haven't worked with one myself yet
- maceration water is hell soup and I put aromatics in my face mask like some sort of plague doctor when I have to work with it
- I had to clear out some decaying brain matter from sheep skulls and it had the exact texture of rice pudding except it smelled like ten thousand wet sheep mixed with rotting meat and it's the closest I've come to almost vomiting mid-work
- recently deceased animals are still floppy and strange. I was handling a cottontail rabbit and could feel its muscles flexing around
- eyes really are like jelly
- organs are actually quite colourful and pastel
- a processed pelt smells kind of like rawhide

There's more, but I'm blanking atm.

Hope this is useful!
Could I ask about specific environments like the desert? I'm currently writing something that basically takes place in the whole desert part of Nevada and it has me curious about how death and decay would go on down there
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
Could I ask about specific environments like the desert? I'm currently writing something that basically takes place in the whole desert part of Nevada and it has me curious about how death and decay would go on down there
Without moisture the body would become mummified/desiccated quickly; the skin would get so dry and hard that most insects wouldn't be able to chew through it anymore. The carcass would become embrittled over time. If it lasted that long-- coyotes would probably rip it into a million pieces first. Slim pickings in the desert.
Nice nice nice nice,
thank you!!

Could I ask about how bone cleaning would go? How one would go about collecting specimens and whatnot? Both for a taxidermist character and someone who thinks they’re one day have the focus and time to do similar things. I’d phrase it better but I don’t know how to phrase it any better oops
hello friend i have some vulture culture questions about my nasty boys which i'm putting under a collapse for the sake of anyone squeamish

nasty boy content


1. my filthy bayou witch from the gutter collects bones for witchcraft reasons and also because They Just Look Cool. i want to make it canon that he finds the bones and cleans them himself but the year is,,,roughly 1865-1870. so i guess i have two questions:
-how would it be possible for this nasty little man to clean the bones himself and have them be Not Disgusting. like, what materials would he probably have access to in that regard?? (if not at all possible i could probably just make it be something magic related lmao)
-how hard would it be for him to skin an animal by himself?

2. feral cockney bastard is cursed to be a vulture shifter which comes along with a vulture's lovely diet. some questions:
-this is mainly a lore thing but to make it short and simple, sometimes he craves raw meat while in human form, particularly hearts. i was just wondering how hard it would be to take a heart out of recently deceased body?? i'm assuming you can't just reach in and pluck it out but i don't know if he would have to carve it out. he's eaten human hearts too and idk if you would know anything about that specifically but any help is greatly appreciated lmao.
-what,,,are the texture of organs. and this is probably a dumb question but if you were to bite into an organ fresh out of a body, would it like?? have blood in it??


anyways thank u for hosting this thread pal!!! feel free to answer none or a few of mine because i know that's probably a lot of info.
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
Nice nice nice nice,
thank you!!

Could I ask about how bone cleaning would go? How one would go about collecting specimens and whatnot? Both for a taxidermist character and someone who thinks they’re one day have the focus and time to do similar things. I’d phrase it better but I don’t know how to phrase it any better oops
There's a handful of different ways to clean bones (burial, rot pots, dermestid beetles, etc), so I'll just outline the most common method and you can let me know if the others sound intriguing.

Welcome to the wonderful world of ✧・゚: *✧・゚:* macerating! *:・゚✧*:・゚✧

Nitty-gritty details

Macerate is a verb meaning "to soften something in liquid," and that's the general idea. You use water to accelerate the decomposition process and remove flesh, fur, feathers, etc from the bone. It smells like hell soup and I would definitely recommend doing it away from your place of living (some brave souls do it in their bathrooms using sealed containers but I am not that powerful)

1. Take reference photos of the teeth and de-flesh your specimen if you have the stomach for it. The more organic matter you get rid of at the start, the faster the process goes. There's really no "correct" way to skin or gut something unless you're planning to save the meat or pelt. Just cut until you feel bone and then cut not-that-way. Your local scavengers will love you for it. Also, a fresh carcass smells pungent and like meat and you're just gonna have to live with that.

2. Fill up a bucket with water. Drop your specimen in and forget about it. Don't change the water too often aside from refilling the bucket-- the accumulation of bacteria in the water is what's going to do the dirty work. Also, a lot of bugs are gonna try and get in on the meat party and drown in the bucket, which also smells bad. If you find there's not much decomp happening, add a splash of beer or blood to the water to jumpstart the cycle.

3. Depending on specimen size and your climate, macerating could still take a while. Check on the bucket periodically. When it looks like mostly bones, dump it out and hose off the remains. Teeth will probably fall out of their skulls at this point. No biggie-- just collect them all and set them aside. Let everything dry for a bit.

4. Degreasing is the slowest part of this process. Fill a clean bucket with warm water and a lot of Dawn dishsoap. Stir the bucket and cackle like an evil wizard. Dunk your bones and forget about them again. Some people use heaters to keep the water warm, as this speeds up degreasing, but it's not essential. Change the water when it gets really murky. Repeat until the water is more or less clear. It's tempting to skip this step because of how patience-testing it is, but degreasing is the only way to get trapped fat and blood out from deep in the bones. Over time, these can cause the bones to become discoloured, greasy, and bad-smelling. It's better to just do it right the first time. Rinse your bones and let them dry a day or two once they're degreased.

5. At last! Whitening! Submerge your bones in pure hydrogen peroxide. Most percentages are fine, but I'd stay away from the really strong stuff like 99%. Change your peroxide if it gets cloudy-- hopefully the last few steps went well enough that it won't. Leave your bones in until they reach their desired brightness, then take them out and let them dry.

6. Your bones are done! Glue the teeth back in, articulate them, make art, whatever.

A few side notes:

- birds have weird semi-hollow bones that tend to disintegrate quickly. Keep a closer eye on them
- most birds are also protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in the US and Canada, so be careful what specimens you collect
- always read up on your local laws! Don't go to jail
- if you're working outside in a rural area the local wildlife WILL steal your bones and this is a fact. I am going to throw hands with every coyote
- wear protective gear such as gloves, maybe goggles or a face mask. DEFINITELY use a face mask if you're working with raccoons-- there's a parasite called the raccoon roundworm and its eggs can be inhaled
- likewise, armadillos can carry leprosy, and always be wary of rabies
- never ever bleach or boil your bones! You don't use hot water to get a stain out-- likewise, don't boil your bones or you're cooking the blood and grease right in. Stay away from bleach if you want a permanent specimen. It damages the bone and over time causes it to become chalky, powdery, and flake away into nothing. I'll post an example tomorrow of a bear skull I bought that was bleach-treated.

As for where to collect, it depends on your ethics. Some people hunt for their own specimens (or use kill jars in the case of insects). Some people (like me) are hideous bone goblins who hobble around the woods and roads looking for carcasses and roadkill. Roadkill is free but often severely damaged by the car that killed it. Similarly, carcasses you find in the woods are often scavenged. You're unlikely to get a full skeleton in any case. Talk to hunters, farmers, butchers, and taxidermists. They're your cool new friends.

Taxidermists tend to specialize in skinning, pelt-tanning, and making mounts, but since skulls and the like are a niche market for collectors, I think it would be a profitable side-hustle.


haunt wrote:
hello friend i have some vulture culture questions about my nasty boys which i'm putting under a collapse for the sake of anyone squeamish
ohoho why hello. welcome to bone city

For your filthy bayou gutter witch whomst I love, refer to the guide above! I think a water-based method would be the easiest for him given his location. The fur kind of blooms out in the water as it rots off the dermis. Although, rot pots are also very aesthetic. You can't actually grow any plants in these flower pots because the amount of nitrogen released by the decaying matter burns their roots and kills them-- so, you end up with a front porch covered in weird, desolate, empty-looking planters that secretly contain skeletons. nice

Info within (no images)

1. Depends on the animal's size. Something like a game bird or rabbit is easy to clean on your own (rabbit pelts come off like a glove whereas trying to skin a squirrel is like. pure gristle). Basically you just want to cut until you feel bone and then cut away from it. Take care if you want to save the pelt or meat, but otherwise just go for it. Puncturing the stomach, particularly in herbivores, smells like death. never do it

Larger animals like deer are trickier. They take a couple people to hang up. Outside is probably the best place, though you could also do it in a garage and hose the floor down ig. They are deceptively heavy-- my doe head felt like carrying a cinderblock.

There's a couple skinning videos I have in mind, but I won't link to them on a public forum. tldr; it would be pretty easy for him to skin stuff and work with bones on his lonesome.


2. Ah yes the bastard himself. Hmm. I don't usually do a full gutting and have only ever removed a starling heart, but from my understanding it's not that difficult as long as you're careful. Larger creatures have thicker bones you'd have to cut through. But, I mean. They sell animal hearts in grocery stores so I guess it's 100% possible lmao

Organs are squishy and rubbery and would definitely have some fluid in them. It wouldn't all be blood-- there's all kinds of plasma and bile and lovely stuff like that. I guess a fresh one would still have a lot of blood in it. idk I keep thinking of that deer esophagus that was basically a slimy dripping gore rope. But my experience is mostly in organs that have already started decaying, so I may not be as much help in that area.

Thank y'all for your questions and letting me ramble about my odd hobbies!
cw animal death basically? I think?
no one in this thread should expect anything but bone business under this collapse

Yersinia wrote:
- never ever bleach or boil your bones! You don't use hot water to get a stain out-- likewise, don't boil your bones or you're cooking the blood and grease right in. Stay away from bleach if you want a permanent specimen. It damages the bone and over time causes it to become chalky, powdery, and flake away into nothing. I'll post an example tomorrow of a bear skull I bought that was bleach-treated.

oh im hyped im hyped im hyped
Yersinia wrote:

As for where to collect, it depends on your ethics. Some people hunt for their own specimens (or use kill jars in the case of insects). Some people (like me) are hideous bone goblins who hobble around the woods and roads looking for carcasses and roadkill. Roadkill is free but often severely damaged by the car that killed it. Similarly, carcasses you find in the woods are often scavenged. You're unlikely to get a full skeleton in any case. Talk to hunters, farmers, butchers, and taxidermists. They're your cool new friends.

Where I live a lot of birds tend to just
kind of die beside the road
because capitalism basically
maybe, I can't imagine it's a sign of a healthy bird population
And I have to prevent myself from just picking up these whole dead @#$ birds and carrying them home with me because I'm Not An Adult and while my pets would probably be jazzed my mom Wouldn't be.
Also I thought collecting 'roadkill' (galaxy brain - if it dies beside a road its road kill) was probably illegal so I refrain. I always hear that its not but I'm sure I'd fine a way to break some weird law about scraping possums off the road for their b̥o̡̺̪͙̠̟̮ͅn̲̩̪̞e̫s
Hey I heard a thing about people burying their pets in their flower pots. I also heard that couldn't work because the soil wasn't oxygenated enough. Do you have any idea what the facts might be?
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
Hey I heard a thing about people burying their pets in their flower pots. I also heard that couldn't work because the soil wasn't oxygenated enough. Do you have any idea what the facts might be?
I know that in Ontario I was able to check the Ministry of Natural Resources website and they had a page regarding animal collection laws. Roadkill was A-okay except for protected species. You're also supposed to register large furbearing mammals (but a Notice of Possession is super easy to fill out online and then you're fully covered from the wrath of the government). Something to keep in mind for the future ig.

Also! As promised: bleached bones.

QXsZkRdl.jpg

This is a young American black bear skull. Someone less bone-savvy bought it for me as a gift, so of course I appreciate it despite how it was prepped. In addition to being bleached, it looks like it was glazed with something and it reeks of turpentine. I keep it in a display box to protect it from itself (and also to protect me lmao)

Anytime I touch it a bunch of powered bone falls off. It's very brittle and has started cracking and flaking.

p2BqF8fm.jpg k9VzAEDm.jpg 4puzSslm.jpg

Dunking this skull in bleach was definitely faster than the whole maceration process, but now it's turning into a pile of dust.

Mejasoulfruit wrote:
Hey I heard a thing about people burying their pets in their flower pots. I also heard that couldn't work because the soil wasn't oxygenated enough. Do you have any idea what the facts might be?
Hmm...I've never had that particular problem with rot pots. If someone had that issue, it sounds like their flower pot was too densely packed, too dry, or didn't have any insects in it. Loose-packed soil, frequent watering, and tossing in a handful of worms from the bait shop should fix it. Also, having a drainage hole at the bottom of the pot, or other holes for insects to get into.

the concept of watering a corpse is weird I know but stay with me here

There's also a couple other ways to use rot pots. Some people leave them mostly empty and lay the specimen at the bottom with maybe a sprinkling of dirt. Others flip the flower pot upside down with the specimen underneath it and let the insects get to work. Note: I've found scavengers can just flip them very easily and steal your bones.

The whole point of a rot pot is to keep the bones in one place. When you bury a carcass in open ground, the soil shifts with the seasons and weather, and animal activity moves the bones away from their original location. I somehow lost an entire deer mandible this way even though it was huge. Another note: when you bury something it may retain stains from the soil. Personally I like the way it looks, but if you want pearly-white bones burial might risk that.
Oh no!! That really sucks. It's a cool skull tho!!

I think the thing people are having with burying pets in flower pots is that they're not doing it to collect their bones but to bury their pet and they're usually just some poor layman who doesn't have the ability to go out back and bury their pet, so they don't fully realize all the things that come with shoving their cat in with their window marigolds.

I'll prolly have more questions in a little bit : 0 Thank you for sharing this information!! It's really cool and helpful!
I know what u do isn't exactly taxidermy I promise, but do you happen to know much about bird taxidermy? I'm mostly just curious on how the whole getting the feathers off and on process goes
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
I know what u do isn't exactly taxidermy I promise, but do you happen to know much about bird taxidermy? I'm mostly just curious on how the whole getting the feathers off and on process goes
I have a passing interest in taxidermy/own some even though it's not something I've personally attempted yet. To taxiderm a bird, you need to skin it like any other animal-- the feathers will come off with the dermis.

Drawn reference within

tumblr_inline_pk7feqBWWw1uxz00k_400.gif

vultureculturecoyote is a good resource and could definitely answer any specific questions regarding bird skinning!

The skin would be tanned/cured and then mounted over what's basically a sculpture in the shape of a bird. I've never tanned a bird skin, but if they're anything like any other animal you could use a vegetable or brain tan, battery acid, or store-bought chemicals used by the industry. Tanning is a whole other long-ass process that tends to be expensive and marginally dangerous so I don't bother with it much. For really small pelts you can just use salt or borax.

I also talked to my friend who ran a taxidermy club in university. They did specimen prep ("study skins") for the biology department, granted, so the specimens weren't being mounted in an artistic way.

"Bird on a stick" as she calls them

- Slit open bird
- Pry skin away from torso
- Expose arms, legs, and throat
- Cut through arm and leg bones, cut through throat
- Continue peeling skin away from torso
- Separate torso from tailbone without cutting open bowels
- Remove muscle tissue from arm and leg bones
- Holding neck bone, peel skin away from skull to expose eyes
- Remove eyes
- Remove tongue
- Remove brain
- Wash and dry bird
- Secure arm bones, secure leg bones
- Skewer stick through skull
- Stuff eyeholes with cotton
- Wrap stick in cotton to fill torso
- Sew torso shut
- Adjust feathers
- Pin in place till dry and stiff

Thankfully, the days of making taxidermy by stuffing animal skins with asbestos and other carcinogens are over!

(Some notes about birds: try not to cut the crop because that's where they store all their uneaten food and it smells bad. Also, the beak sheath comes off, so don't lose it.)
wow that??? is a lot simpler than I thought it would be?? Obvi it's still a hard and delicate process, but for some reason I had it in my head that surely all the feathers must be removed first, or that they would somehow fall off?? Thank you again!! This is all really cool!
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
wow that??? is a lot simpler than I thought it would be?? Obvi it's still a hard and delicate process, but for some reason I had it in my head that surely all the feathers must be removed first, or that they would somehow fall off?? Thank you again!! This is all really cool!
No problem! It's harder than working with just bones imo but still manageable.

There IS something called slippage where layers of the dermis essentially rot before they can be preserved, causing bald patches in the finished product. There's not really anything you can do to 100% prevent it. For furs, you can conceal severe slippage by sewing the area together. I'm not sure if it works the same for birds. There's a couple people on YouTube who specialize in repairing museum taxidermy if you want to look into it more.
Ohhh, that sound's real cool! Could you tell me their channel name?
Mejasoulfruit wrote:
Ohhh, that sound's real cool! Could you tell me their channel name?
Threw together a list of Youtubers who might be of interest:

- Ask A Mortician is, of course, a professional mortician and funeral director. She makes really cool videos on her trade, unusual cases, and death culture and customs. Not taxidermy but I just think she's neat lmao
- American Museum of Natural History has a few videos on taxidermy restoration
- The Wildlife Gallery Taxidermy
- this one specific video on restoring wolf taxidermy
- TacoKel did a really cool video series on her first time trying to diaphonize specimens. Again, not taxidermy, but it's neat.
- another random video but this time for taxidermy championships

You are on: Forums » RP Discussion » Writing death & decay

Moderators: MadRatBird, Keke, Libertine, Auberon, Dragonfire, Heimdall, Darth_Angelus