Could you distinguish a dead person from a mannequin?

Caitlin Doughty writes about two recent cases where people came across the bodies of dead people but then dumped them, thinking that they were mannequins put out as pranks. She is the owner of a funeral home and she says that part of the problem is that too few people spend any time at all with their deceased loved ones, thinking that they must quickly shunt them off to funeral homes, and thus have little idea of what a dead person looks like.

How could this happen twice in the span of two years? The answer lies in our strained, often non-existent relationship to the dead body. In the Western world, Halloween mannequins are more of a reality than a real dead body. The misidentification of a corpse by civilians is not a surprising outcome, it is the only outcome.

I opened my latest book with the story of a daughter who wanted to keep her mother at home after she died. The hospice nurse, well intentioned though she may have been, erroneously told the daughter that to do this would be illegal, that the funeral home had to come take away the body immediately. The daughter feared that something she desperately wanted for her own healing was morbid and wrong.

Meeting our dead, in their natural state, is something Americans practiced for hundreds of years before the rise of the modern funeral industry (and the chemical preservation and makeup that came with it). Anyone who has cared for their own dead knows it is a simple transition back to that time past. Our dead have almost magic powers—an outsized, powerful, and unexpectedly profound effect on the grieving individual. Even if we fear them, we must see them for what they are—treasure, not trash.

If you had asked me before whether I could tell the difference between a dead person and a mannequin, I would have said of course. But after reading this, I am not so sure. When I have been to open-casket funerals of people I have known, they do not look quite like what they did when alive. Given the increasing life-like appearance of mannequins these days, maybe I could get confused too.


  1. Owlmirror says

    I hope that, if it had been me, I would have looked more closely at the head and hands for details, before dismissing it as a mannequin. I also hope that I would have thought to look up, and see the open window.

    A while back (a year ago? two years?), I spotted something that looked vaguely like a body near the back of a parked vehicle. I told my passenger that I wasn’t sure, and wanted to drive around again to make sure. It took a long time, but we did eventually get around again, and the passenger got out and checked.

    It was a sack of carpet, slumped in an odd way.

    It was a busy street, and as far as I know, we were the only ones that stopped. Did everyone else see more clearly that it wasn’t a body, or did they just edit it out of their minds?

  2. blf says

    Dead people and mannequins move very differently, weigh very differently, feel very different. I call bullshit.

    I’ve never handled either (so am hard pressed to tell the weight difference), never seen either move (other than in fiction), and having never handled either nor have very little idea how either feels. As such, I call bullshite on the call of bullshite.

    But there is a point here. Indirect evidence can suggest the weight or other differences. And can suggest what has happened — for instance, I have seen covered somethings being moved about on gurneys, and into / within hearses. This was in real life, so I doubt the somethings were, e.g., mannequins or the more fantastical things in fiction.

  3. says

    As such, I call bullshite on the call of bullshite.

    I got called upon once to do death castings (since I also do life casting) and spent a couple evenings gently slopping alginate and silicone in the house of Ibis and Anubis. I probably shouldn’t post any of the pictures of my work, but -- the body rapidly loses moisture when the person dies, and it gets a rather odd waxiness and looseness that is really impossible to mistake for a mannequin. Mannequins don’t have accurate hair and joints and fingerprints or wounds or noses with real holes or eyes with drying eyeballs, etc.

    I suppose there are people stupid enough to mistake a corpse of a mannequin. There are people stupid enough to mistake Trump for a president. But I’m going to call bullshit -- if I saw a mannequin and a corpse 200 yards away I could tell you right away which was which. And so, could you.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    I am not convinced I could tell a mannequin from a corpse at 200 yards
    but I absolutely could if I actally handled it.

  5. John Morales says

    One could certainly use a corpse as a mannequin, in which case there would be no distinction.

    (In bad taste? Seems no worse to me than keeping a corpse at home as a comfort item)

    I once mistook a stick for a snake.

  6. says

    I’m pretty sure most people could tell the difference, if they bothered to pay attention. Someone who dumped a corpse most likely would plead ignorance upon being caught.

    I’m with Marcus here. A corpse most definitely does not feel in any way like a mannequin, not even in rigor mortis. Skin does not feel like plastic or wood. There’s also the little thing about smell -- corpses decay, and they definitely smell.

  7. kestrel says

    I sure could.

    This is one of the “benefits” of raising livestock. If you have livestock, sooner or later you are going to have deadstock. Have you ever seen the blown pupil? Well I have. Many times. And so on and so forth… there are a ton of clues that tell you, “Holy shit, this animal is dead!”

    I’m not sure I would call bullshit, however. I have seen people do some incredibly clueless things so I would actually not be surprised. However, I would maintain that any thinking person could tell the difference. It’s pretty freaking obvious if you are paying attention.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    Maybe the problem is not that They™ have never handled a corpse,
    it is that They™ have never handled a mannequin.
    Everyone (probably) has, at sometime, handled another living animal; something made of meat and covered in skin.
    If they have never touched a mannequin, they might think that mannequins are also made of meat and covered in skin.

  9. cartomancer says

    It strikes me that it is entirely possible to mistake a corpse for some kind of mannequin, particularly if you are in a hurry and don’t take time to examine it properly. If you approach the task with the question already in your mind -- “is this a mannequin, or an actual corpse?”, then you will probably notice the distinctive features of an actual human body. But I can well believe that these people took a cursory glance, thought “who put this here? Damn kids!”, and then just assumed it was a mannequin or model anyway. The human mind is very capable of coming up with a narrative that makes sense and then using that as the lens through which to process new information. If the people doing the carrying were approaching the situation with a kids-leaving-out-a-mannequin scenario then they could easily blunder through and ignore the telltale signs.

    When I was at school I frequently found myself taking something other than my school bag with me when I went out the door, simply because it was in the place I usually left my bag. I can see how this sort of thinking would apply.

  10. flex says

    I don’t know if I could or not, at a glance, tell the difference between an embalmed corpse and a mannequin. My expectations would certainly colour my impressions, as Cartomancer @13 alludes.

    However, on a closer and more detailed inspection, I would hope I would be able to tell the difference.

    This may be a place for a plug for one of the most illuminating television shows I ever saw. Dr. Johnathan Miller in the 1970’s created a show called, “The Body in Question” which illustrated many parts of how the human body works, as well as how it acts and reacts. Unfortunately, it is unavailable on DVD. I suspect that some of the releases were not up to modern standards as they perform an autopsy on camera as well as interview prospective patients about their upcoming operations. As most of those people were old they are probably dead by now, getting releases from their families would be an onerous job. But it is available on YouTube I recommend it.

  11. flex says

    Heh. NP John. I actually torrented them years ago (don’t tell), and occasional burn some copies to give to friends. Yes, I know it’s illegal, but the content is worth it. The sequence where he demonstrates how it’s carbon dioxide which triggers our lungs to breath is alone worth the watch. He hooks himself up to a re-breather which removes the CO2 but doesn’t replenish the O2. Then he starts writing on a pad, just scribbling the alphabet IIRC. You see that as his brain starts getting starved for oxygen, even though he doesn’t start to pant, his hand-writing starts to go south. He gets nearer and nearer to losing consciousness from oxygen deprivation before he removes the re-breather. It is a fascinating show. It’s one of 2-3 shows which I think should be shown to everyone in high school. The original “Connections” is another one which springs to mind, but I purchased those DVDs when they became available. I would purchase “The Body in Question” in a heartbeat if it ever became available.

  12. John Morales says

    Thanks, flex. I endorse your encomium towards that program, I remember it myself if not quite as favourably.

    As a totally off-topic aside, I am of the opinion that doing the right thing is more laudable than doing the legal thing when the two differ. So, kudos.

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