Writers Explore: Disposing of a dead body

In honour of NaNoWriMo, let’s take a look at one of those topics that writers tend to Google far too much – disposing of a dead body.

Let’s be honest, if anyone took a look at the search history of a writer – especially a crime or mystery writer – it would probably be quite disturbing. One of the things that fascinates us writers is how a character might try to get away with murder.

So in this post, and purely on a theoretical basis, let us look at how to get rid of that pesky surplus corpse.

Before we begin, I should point out that every solution can come with an additional set of problems which can spiral out of control. There is no such thing as a perfect murder but a story about attempting one could be really interesting. If you write that, please let me know – I want to read it.

Disposing of a dead body: Moving the corpse

First things first. Have you ever tried to move someone who has passed out drunk? They become unbelievably heavy. That’s what a dead body is like. Your first problem is moving it.

You’ve got a few options here.

  1. Dispose of the body right there (tricky)
  2. Ropes, winches, and pullies (fiddly)
  3. Ask someone to help you (risky)
  4. Cut up the body (messy)
  5. Don’t kill anyone to start with (too late)

Whichever option your character goes for is going to leave trace evidence all over the show. However, your character has already got a body so there is no turning back now.

Disposing of a dead body right there

Oh boy, this is all sorts of problems. Dead bodies are basically a huge unprocessed sack of meat and other less pleasant things. They are going to smell bad after a short amount of time. The hotter, the faster that bad smell is going to show up.

Talking of showing up. Flies and other bugs are going to be attracted to the smell pretty soon. If you have ever watched Bones (or similar shows), then I am sure you have a lot of ideas about flesh-eating insects. However, mostly we are talking flies and maggots.

If “right here” happens to be the middle of a woods then you have probably been planning this for a while (you scary person). If the site of death is suitable for disposal then skip the moving stage and move on to a whole other set of problems.

Before you move on, remember that anyone might have known that the victim was heading to the site. Their phone may have GPS so their movements might have been tracked. They might have said something to someone. They might have dropped something on the way.

The fact is that you (or your character) might never catch all the clues and clean them up.

Disposing of a dead body with ropes and pullies

In terms of moving heavy things, some good climbing gear could be a huge help. You can, on your own, move the heavy sack of dead meat that is the victim in your story (this is still theoretical, right). However, you may leave trace rope fibres, cause most-death damage to the corpse, and/or leave trace evidence at the scene of the death. Also, you will have (possibly expensive) kit left over that was used in a serious crime. You will need to get rid of this afterwards too.

In this video, the basics of lifting a body (yourself or another) using ropes and pullies are explained.

Disposing of a dead body with an accomplice

This is another approach you could take. However, having an assistant means having a witness that could turn on you. If your character is of a particularly evil nature, they could always kill the accomplice at the disposal site and double their workload.

Two people moving about the crime scene substantially increases the chances that someone is going to leave a clue behind.

Disposing of a dead body in bite-sized chunks

If you choose to cut up the body Dexter style then there is a serious clean up going to be needed. Cutting is not much use if you are trying to minimise the trace evidence that’s going to show up on your character and the crime scene.

You could try plastic sheeting but it comes with its own problems. Dexter, if you have read the book or seen the show, had a legitimate reason for obtaining and using plastic sheeting but your character might not have a good cover story.

You could try strong bleach for cleaning the crime scene. However, obtaining industrious quantities of bleach just after a murder might raise suspicions.

Disposing of the actual body

One way or another you have moved the dead body to a new location. This probably involved a car, some really big backpacks, or some other form of transport. Assuming that no one saw you and the police are not already asking you to “come along peacefully”, what now?

Disposing of a dead body: with pigs

If you are a fan of British made crime films (Snatch comes to mind) then you probably think feeding a dead body to a pig is a good idea. It might be effective but in terms of plot, Fed to Pigs is a trope that has been a little overdone of late.

Pigs, as mentioned above, are sufficiently common in crime stories as corpse disposal machines that it is in danger of becoming a cliche. It could work but can’t you come up with something a bit more interesting?

Disposing of a dead body: Burial

A classic because it works so well. However, there are some drawbacks.

Digging a deep hole is hard work. you could get help but that has drawbacks of its own. Digging among trees, at night, while maybe a bit panicked is even harder. Doing all that and then not coming home and looking like you have been digging holes is probably impossible.

Digging in the sand is easier but so is the body getting found.

One often explored ide is to dig an extra deep hole and add a second victim (a family pet) somewhat higher up. This might throw the searchers off. It might not if they have read this, though.

Disposing of a dead body: Reuse a grave

If despite my warnings about the dangers of working with other people, you want to go this route then you might be able to find a corruptable mortician and arrange for your corpse to share a coffin.

If working alone is more your character’s style, then re-digging a fresh grave and dumping your poor victim in there, while risky while you dig, is still a logical choice.

If you happen to run a crematorium then you have further options but I’m guessing this is back to the problem of bribing someone and keeping them quite. Maybe acid could do the job of fire…

Disposing of a dead body: Flesh Eating Hydrofluoric Acid

This solution (excuse the pun) crops up on shows like Breaking Bad. To help you give an authentic portrayal of using acid to dispose of a dead body, we turn to science for answers.

This video shows the results of experimentally dipping chicken into three different acids. Chicken, in this case, is a reasonable analogy for disposing of a dead body without the need to do something horrific to another human being.

Disposing of a dead body: Fire

So you don’t have access to a crematorium but you think a fire will remove all evidence. This is no small task.

A burning corpse is going to stink. I mean really stink. All that hair and body waste are going to hum worse than your hasty cover story.

You will need to get the fire hot. Around 1000°C for three hours should do it. After all, a body is mostly water. A fire like that is going to raise questions. On the other hand, DNA and other trace evidence will get eaten up.

An alternative would be to use a steal works. At 1370°C the only thing that will be left will be a little extra phosphorous which would make the steal a bit harder and more brittle. Again, this might be a clue if your character is not careful enough.

Disposing of a dead body: Water

BoatContinuing our theme of the elements, what about water? If you have access to a boat then maybe taking a trip out to sea might hold the answer.

The problem is that bodies float. So you will need to secure them to something heavy. When they go down to Davie Jones Locker you need to feel secure that they are not coming back up.

You will also need a site that is deep enough that no one is going to go down there. The deeper the better. That means a tench or somewhere past the continental shelf. However, out there currents can do amazing things so choose carefully.

The sea is not a forgiving graveyard and things frequently come back when they are least wanted. Have you seen what washes up on the beach? In Margate, for example, World War Two munitions (live and deadly) still show up from time to time.

The general advice seems to be to roll the body in a chain link fence before sending them to their final resting place.

This had the advantage of potentially removing the body forever but the headache of making sure no evidence ends up on your boat. How good are you at cleaning? A single drop of blood or a stray hair could be enough to put the canny detective on the character’s trail.

Disposing of a dead body: By eating them

eat itBy far the most effective method, if a little slow, would be to butcher, cook, and eat the body. The bones and teeth could be ground up into a fine powder and used as a food additive. Grim but effective.

If you own some dogs or other animals, they could help you.

For extra horror, if the character owns a restaurant…

Other considerations

Cleaning up after the crime is a whole other story. Almost everything you do is going to leave traces and no matter how carefully you clean, you might miss something. To make your character’s life harder, the people investigating the murder will be experts at finding things while you (or your character) are newbies.

Here are a few things that you might want to add to your research list.

  • Luminol – reacts with haemoglobin to enable investigators to detect tiny traces of blood.
  • Bleach – because you don’t want luminal to be your downfall
  • Matches – because burning it all down may be your only choice
  • A change of clothes – everything your character had on is evidence

A change of clothes

Seven years after the police took his boots they were able to get DNA evidence that led to the arrest of mass murderer Robert Pickton. Basically, your character needs to burn their clothes.

Of course, a change of clothes is no help if you cannot get clean yourself first. Which will probably leave your DNA all over the cleanup site. I did mention the problems pile up. Have fun solving that one. More bleach and luminol might be called for but good luck explaining why you washed the bathroom with that stuff.

Blood and Magnets

Blood contains iron and iron reacts to magnets. Does that mean you can clean up blood with giant magnets?

Warning, this video contains blood.

More ideas for disposing of a dead body

This reddit thread has a long discussion on the subject of getting rid of a body. Let’s just say that the pigs get talked about a lot.

What’s the best way to get rid of a dead body? from AskReddit

Feel free to chip in with your ideas for how a character could realistically get rid of a dead body. I’d love to hear your ideas.

You might be interested in our previous Writers Explore which looked at mental health. This topic might or might not tie in depending on what sort of story you are trying to tell.

Writers Explore: Mental Illness

mental illness

Mental illness is a topic that has long fascinated writers. Mental illness has been the topic of many different stories, with varying degrees of accuracy and success.

One hurdle we writers must overcome to tell an authentic story is how we get away from cliches and stereotypes of mental illness. This first episode of “Writers Explore” we look at mental illness from the perspective of a writer.

What is mental health?

Before we dive into what it means to suffer a loss of mental health (mental illness) it may help to establish exactly what we mean by mental health.

Mental illness is not a plot device.

Mental illness – especially schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder (entirely separate things by the way) – these are not simply convenient plot devices.

It is not okay to simply cite madness as the reason your character is being weird. Mental illness is not an excuse to have no reason for a character’s behaviour. Mental illness, just like cancer or arthritis, has an underlying mechanism. It has a cause. There is a root cause for the suffering.

Towards the end of a blog post “Mental Illness as a plot device and other bad ideas“, Drew Chial says this:

You have to be careful when you identify a character’s disorder. Your portrayal must be nuanced, not grandiose. Not only do you run the risk of losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you run the risk of offending them.

I would go further.If your entire understanding of mental illness is something you saw on TV and a little bit of trash quality pop-psychology, then you have no business writing about mental illness.

Convenient mental breaks, laser-guided amnesia, and other trashy plotting should be added to the list of hack writing techniques that we need to avoid.

Mental ill-health is not a fun addition to a character. Mental health is not a nice way to make a character more interesting. It is a complex set of societal judgements, burdens and problems to be overcome.

Jessica Dall writes in her blog post “Plot device disorders” about:

…the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,

She is right to point it out – mental illness is never “fun”.

Schizophrenia: A tale of mental illness.

“Is it okay if I totally trash your office?” It’s a question Elyn Saks once asked her doctor, and it wasn’t a joke. A legal scholar, in 2007 Saks came forward with her own story of schizophrenia, controlled by drugs and therapy but ever-present. In this powerful talk, she asks us to see people with mental illness clearly, honestly and compassionately.

Suicide: Terminal mental illness.

When the illness becomes too much, when hope diminishes, mental illness can lead to death. But it is a death that we too frequently do not understand.

We often hear people saying “I don’t understand why she would do that,” and “why would he take his own life?” That’s when we hear a compassionate response. Too often I hear people write off suicide as stupid, as selfish, as “just a cry for help”. All that tells me is that the person speaking does not understand.

It is not a case of just “cheering up”.

I’m just going to put this out there: If you write a character with depression or mental illness and by the end of the book they get the girl, get the promotion, or win the day and are suddenly fine – you failed as a writer. Whatever you were writing about it was not a mental illness it was just a self-absorbed gloomy Gus. No one wants to read that nonsense.

This was something that Ruby Wax talked about when she gave a TED talk on mental illness – the stigma of mental illness. Why is it, she asks, that you get sympathy when you get sick in any organ of the body apart from the brain?

Show us the full story of mental illness.

If you are going to write about mental illness it is not enough to simply understand the condition. As we said in creating compelling female characters, the way society responds is part of the picture too.

With a mental illness, that reaction is often negative. Rarely is ist negative through malice but through ignorance.

This is because mental illness is often seen as a taboo subject. It is frequently repeated that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Yet we rarely talk about it.

Not only that but, right now, it is deeply likely that a person in the UK with a mental illness is not going to receive adequate care and support. The NHS has been forced to slash money from the mental health budget again and again. According to King’s Fund, three-quarters of people who suffer mental illness go untreated.

There has been an ongoing historic inequality between the way physical and mental health are treated in the NHS. This is a huge political issue that is not going away anytime soon. As writers, we are well placed to widen the discussion about these issues and shed some light on what is going on. But first, we have to know what it is like.

The mentally ill as targets for cuts

I don’t want to get too policial with this guide but benefits and the way claimants are treated forms part of the larger story of mental health. The way they are treated is often appalling. There are a number of reports that Jobcentre managers are pressured to sanction and push the mentally ill off of benefits to save money.

Sanctions have risen in both numbers and proportion terms from the late 2000s.

  • Mother-of-three Angie Godwin, 27, said her benefits were sanctioned after she applied for a role jobcentre staff said was beyond her.
  • Michael, 54, had his benefits sanctioned for four months for failing to undertake a week’s work experience at a charity shop. The charity shop had told him they didn’t want him there.
  • John, 40, was unable to leave the house due to an anxiety attack he was sanction for not attending a DWP assessment.

This is a part of the story that is rarely told. It is a grim fact that being mentally ill in the UK is a total nightmare.

Try to imagine dealing with all that while also facing something like this young lady (Cecilia McGough) faced:

Writing what we know – writers who suffer from mental illness.

For writers as with many creative types periods of poor mental health are not uncommon. In fact, writing can be one of the best therapies for dealing with mental health conditions – especially depression and trauma.

Many writers have famously batted mental illness:

  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is believed to have suffered from a bipolar disorder.
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) reportedly suffered from a deep depression, especially in later life.
  • Ernest Hemingway (1889-1961) suffered from very poor mental health descending into alcoholism before he finally committed suicide.

I could go on but I think you get the point.

It is important not to suffer alone. When the black dog is barking, please reach out. At Thanet Creative, many of our writers know what it is like to go down that road. When things seem most hopeless, that’s when staying connected matters the most.

If despair is grinding you down, I beg of you to speak up.

How to write a mentally ill character.

Very briefly I’d like to list some of the more important considerations when writing a character with mental illness.

1. Know what you are talking about

If it is not obvious by now, I am firmly convinced that the only way to write about mental health is to understand not just the condition itself but the way people react to it.

2. Make the character relatable

This is almost a universal rule but do not allow yourself to get lost in the mental health issues and forget that you need to write a character that I, as a reader, can relate to. People who suffer from mental illness are still people. They are no different to you or me – having a mental illness does not make me a monster.

3. Keep the story (plot and narrative) central

Your story is about a character who happens to have mental illness. Mental illness is not the story. The character’s struggles with the world arround them – that is the story.

4. Specify the details of the condition, at least in your head

Mental illness is not generic. It is specific. The symptoms and struggles that go with that condition will be specific to the character. So you cannot portray mental illness unless you know which illness you are portraying. Pretty obvious when you think about it.

5. Don’t get lost in the internal world

While you might find the condition you are writing about fascinating, like any good storyteller, you need to prune back the details and focus on the story. Just like anything else you might choose to put in a story, show don’t tell. Pull back the curtain and show us this world but try not to get lost in there.

6. Tell a good story

While you are doing all that, don’t forget that you need to tell a good story. How you do that is a whole other article.

Mental Illness: Further Reading.

The bustle has a list of novels that give (in their opinion) the most realistic portrayals of mental health issues. But what else is there to read about mental illness and writing?

Writers Digest has a great broad strokes overview of how to write mentally ill characters.

How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel

You may want to read Rosie Claverton’s “5 Biggest mistakes when writing mental illness“.

5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

As writers, our work often starts with reading. Book Riot has a list of 100 books about mental illness.

100 Must-Read Books about Mental Illness

Beyond your blog has a list of places to be published when writing about mental health topics. Sadly, there are not that many paid publications.

18 Places To Publish Your Writing About Mental Health Topics

Whizzpast has a list of 8 writers that suffered from poor mental health. That’s where I drew my examples from.

Madder than most? Eight writers who suffered from mental illness

Dan Koboldt writes “Mental Illness in fiction: Getting it right“. He, quite rightly, points out that OCD is not humorous and it is okay to talk about suicide. In fact, it may be healthy for us to talk about suicide just a little more openly.

Mental Illness In Fiction: Getting It Right

Over to you

No matter how much we write about the topic there will always be much more that has been left unsaid. It is just one of those large topics, that way.

  • Have you suffered from mental illness? What were your experiences of it and how has it influenced your writing?
  • What advice would add for writers wanting to tackle to mental health?
  • Which mental health issues would you like to see given a more sympathetic treatment by modern writers?