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A police surgeon writes about his first exhumation and post mortem — of a Malayali actress

In ‘Dead Men Tell Tales’, Dr B. Umadathan — also known as Kerala’s Sherlock Holmes —wrote about his years as a forensic surgeon uncovering the most interesting cases.

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When death occurs under suspicious circumstances it is usual to exhume the body. This is an arduous task for a forensic surgeon. The decomposed, malodorous corpse makes one physically uncomfortable. One is also anxious whether one will be able to find the cause of death. When a body is being dug out, thousands of people gather around to watch, but most of them disappear when the body is brought out. I have had to conduct many exhumations and most often was able to find clues that helped to solve the mystery behind the death. 

Bodies are exhumed in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 176. Usually only executive magistrates are allowed to do this. The inquest is carried out by either the RDO or the tahsildar. The police surgeon is also required to be present at the spot. It is the doctor’s responsibility to ensure that the body is dug up without damaging it. If only the skeletal remains are left, a doctor must ensure that no parts of the bones are lost. 

Ms Kumari’s death 

I was working as a tutor in Trivandrum Medical College when I participated in the process of exhumation for the first time. It was a case that had gained wide publicity. 

Thresiamma, known as Ms Kumari, was a famous actress in Malayalam cinema during the fifties. She was the heroine in all the movies made by Subhramanian, and her movie with the famous actor Satyan, titled Neelakuyil, was a box-office hit. She quit acting and married an engineer working at FACT (Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Ltd). When she died suddenly, her father filed a complaint stating that she had died in suspicious circumstances and wanted the police to conduct an investigation. 

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The exhumation in connection with the investigation happened a year after she died. She had been buried in a grave in the premises of a church in Bharananganam. Dr Kanthaswamy and I reached Kottayam a day before the exhumation was scheduled. The body lay inside a concrete tomb in a large hall. A sister Alphonsa was buried in a grave next to Ms Kumari’s. The exhumation was performed in the presence of the collector. To our great surprise, the body hadn’t decomposed at all. The post-mortem was performed jointly by Dr Kanthaswamy and Dr Jayapalan, who was assistant professor in the Kottayam Medical College. A soap-like substance forms under the skin of dead bodies that are sheltered from sun and rain. It protects the body from decomposing and mixing with the earth. This substance is known as adipocere (and had formed in this case, in the body within the concrete tomb). 

Though my duty was to take photographs of the exhumation and the post-mortem, I watched everything so closely that it stayed in my mind. The abdomen still contained traces of a foul-smelling pesticide. Chemical tests revealed that it was a very toxic substance that is classified under organophosphorus (substances). 

The investigations did not yield any signs of murder. 

First published in 2010 in Malayalam as ‘Oru Police Surgeonte Ormakkurippukal’. 

This excerpt from ‘Dead Men Tell Tales: The Memoir Of A Police Surgeon’  by Dr B. Umadathan, translated by Priya K. Nair, has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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