After death, the body begins decomposition, a process that starts with the breakdown of organic matter and typically leads to the complete degradation of a body. Such a process is highly affected by (micro and macro) environmental factors of intrinsic and extrinsic nature. Adipocere is a substance formed from the decomposition of adipose tissue and represents a disruption to the typical decomposition process. Such disruption causes decomposition to slow or arrest completely, placing a body into a state of preservation, and determines complications in the estimation of the time since death (Post-Mortem Interval, PMI). While several studies have been performed on the nature, the formation and the degradation of adipocere, there is still no reliable model to assess the PMI of a body exhibiting it. Case studies are an important source to aid pathologists and investigators during a case. This review presents a summary and an update on the knowledge surrounding the chemistry and the factors affecting adipocere formation and degradation, the timing and the distribution of adipocere throughout a body, and the techniques used to investigate it. Furthermore, a table of the most important case studies involving adipocere since 1950, several images and descriptions of recent cases and operational considerations for the best practice at the crime scene and autopsy are presented to be used as a reference to facilitate forensic professionals in adipocere cases.
Keywords: Adipose tissue; Best-practice; Case-work; Decomposition; Degradation; Formation; Preservation.
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