I'm working on a story where there is a crime scene where the protagonist (who has a superhuman sense of smell) notices a scent that smells like human corpses due to their abilities. I'm wondering how exactly to describe this smell, and if there is any way that human bodies smell different from those of other animals (e.g., is it something people who work with real-life murder cases notice from experience?)

I know many animals have very strong reactions to dead members of their own species that they don't have to dead members of other species (and humans do have a distinct scent), but at the same time the human sense of olfaction is terrible and it's very possible that, say, a bloodhound could tell the difference between a dead human and a dead deer but humans can't. Unfortunately it is not possible to interview a bloodhound to get their experience on the subject. At the same time it's possible that there is a difference and people only notice and react to it on a subconscious level, similar to what has been found with other human body odors. So a protagonist with super smell might smell something different, but it would be difficult for a human writer without super smell to articulate it to a human audience without super smell.

I've been around dead human bodies in a med lab, but that seems kind of unintuitive as the cadavers there are all treated with preservatives and hence smell like preservatives, and anyone who has been around preserved bodies of any species will tell you that the smell of preservatives is so potent and clings to everything it will overshadow the odor of anything else.

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    $\begingroup$ If you say that dogs can distinguish the smell of a dead human from the smell of a dead rat, and that the protagonist has a superhuman sense of smell, what is there that remains to be explained? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a writing question similar to "how would somebody who could see middle-infrared describe it?" It doesn't matter what the answer is (nobody can disprove you), you simply need to sell it to the reader: "The familiar stale-but-ripe odor of a fresh, unpreserved human corpse." $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ Google 'cadaver dogs.' This could even be good cover for your sleuth. "Oh, it's not me. Fluffy here is brilliantly trained, and only I know how to read his ques. Well, obviously the dog is smelling this stuff, because it's not like I'M doing it, right?" Dogs CAN smell the difference, but you can't describe it. The dead are generically described as 'sickly-sweet' and your character can just embellish that. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yeah, a lot of it is I don't want to make up a smell only for it to turn out there is a real "dead human" smell which people who work homicide or in funeral homes recognize and hence shoots the believability of the story in the foot. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2020 at 5:37

3 Answers 3



There are particular chemicals that appear to be unique to human death odor. Your protag should indeed be able to distinguish human corpse smell from animal carcass smell.

As for what it smells like, that odor changes and evolves over time. You're used, in the medical lab, to a very late part of the timeline, and as you say, modified heavily by preservative chemicals and depressed by refrigeration.

There is clearly an odor that can be detected very shortly after death, not strong at first. Not really unpleasant. The more characteristically strong odors of putrefaction won't begin for several days, I think.


kinda, it has a smell characteristic to many animal carcasses.

As you can see in detail here, the smell of a human corpse is actually a mix of various different smells, which come from the chemicals naturally produced during the process of decomposition, which are usually less present in preserved bodies due to a near or complete absence of the decompositors which produce these substances. However, by "common knowledge", the characteristic dead human smell, the one your character might be identifying, might be mostly due to the presence of cadaverine and putrescine, both named precisely due to their relation to the putrfaction process of cadavers.


Yes several crime shows do point this out human dead is different from animal dead just like cooking animal vs human is different in smell.

You mention you've been exposed to human dead via a lab and it was too controlled have you been to a body farm? If that's truly a place you want to go for the non lab version or you could go the Gettysburg Collage for the off season its rumored to be off season because that's when the smell of the dead permeate the place to the 10th degree it's a form of haunting the place has sickening anyone who tries to endure it but why do this to yourself? I've been privy to a pit of rotting deer pit oh lord that sucked worse then a out house in the dead of summer!

Honestly google it, watch some real life crime shows one I can recall that mentions he difference was in the Caylee Anthony segments when they spoke to the father specifically, or frankly don't mention it say its sweeter or more overwhelming then animals you don't really have to go into detail but rotting human permeates spaces that rotting dead animal do not.

Your person since they have super human smell may not even smell rotting flesh in the same way a dog, or nose sensitive human would they may smell undercurrents of the dead person themselves as people take on the smell of things they most consume sometimes so you could find them based on scent of the thing the victim used most like soap, cigs, or gum flavor (but that'd be alot of gum!)


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