Necrophilia, also known as necrophilism, necrolagnia, necrocoitus, necrochlesis, and thanatophilia, is a mental disease whereby the perpetrator gets sexual pleasure in having sex with the dead (Aggrawal, 2014). It is classified as a paraphilia by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) diagnostic manual, as well as by the American Psychiatric Association in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It may be seen by itself or in association with a number of other paraphilias, namely sadism, cannibalism, vampirism (the practice of drinking blood from a person or animal), necrophagia (eating the flesh of the dead), necropedophilia (sexual attraction to the corpses of children), and necrozoophilia (sexual attraction to the corpses of or killing of animals – also known as necrobestiality).
Necrophilia is a term derived from the Greek words philios (attraction to/love) and nekros (dead body)
Various terms for the crime of corpse-violation animate sixteenth- through nineteenth-century works on law and legal medicine. The plural term “nécrophiles” was coined by Belgian physician Joseph Guislain in his lecture series, Leçons Orales Sur Les Phrénopathies, given around 1850, about the contemporary necrophiliac François Bertrand.
Psychiatrist Bénédict Morel popularised the term about a decade later when discussing Bertrand.
It is within the category of the destructive madmen [aliénés destructeurs] that one needs to situate certain patients to whom I would like to give the name of necrophiliacs [nécrophiles]. The alienists have adopted, as a new form, the case of Sergeant Bertrand, the disinterrer of cadavers on whom all the newspapers have recently reported. However, don’t think that we are dealing here with a form of phrenopathy which appears for the first time. The ancients, in speaking about lycanthropy, have cited examples to which one can more or less relate the case which has just now attracted the public attention so strongly.
Very often the corpses that are used for sexual purposes are not fresh, but rather dug up from graves in a putrefied or mummified condition. Some prefer just bones. Necrophagists actually feed on decaying dead bodies to get sexual pleasure. These are different from cannibals, who prefer fresh meat or who consume dead loved ones for spiritual purposes. A vast spectrum of necrophagists is seen, from those who merely want to lick the genitals or breasts of a dead person, to persons who just want to devour specific parts, to necrophiles who would eat a whole body. Necrophilia is mostly seen in males. It is possible for a necrophile to have normal sexual relations with living beings.
Although the media may give the illusion of a more common prevalence of violent and unusual crimes, necrophilia is even rarer than sexual homicide. However, the true prevalence of necrophilia is unknown given that this paraphilia is most often carried out in secret, with the victim unable to report the act. While it is true that necrophilia is associated with those who commit sexual homicide, it is actually just as rare among sexual homicide offenders reportedly being found in less than 1% of sexual homicides (Stein, Schlesinger, & Pinizzotto, 2010).
Surprisingly, necrophilia dates back hundreds of years and has been documented in Greek mythology, ancient cultures, the Greco-Roman period, the middle ages, and in the modern era (Aggrawal, 2009).
In the ancient world, sailors returning corpses to their home country were often accused of necrophilia.
According to the Babylonian Talmud (3rd–5th centuries AD), King Herod of Judea (73/74 BC – 4 BC) desired a certain maiden and, after she killed herself to avoid marrying him, preserved her body in honey for seven years. Some say that he embalmed her in order to have intercourse with her
Greek author Herodotus (c.484–425 BC) stated in his Histories that in Ancient Egypt bodies of exceptionally beautiful women were not embalmed immediately after their deaths, but only after several days had passed, in order to prevent a recurrence of a case where it was discovered that an embalmer had sex with the body of a recently dead woman.
Herodotus also alluded to suggestions that the Greek tyrant Periander had defiled the corpse of his wife, employing a metaphor: “Periander baked his bread in a cold oven.”
Acts of necrophilia are depicted on ceramics from the Moche culture, which reigned in northern Peru from the first to eighth century CE. A common theme in these artifacts is the masturbation of a male skeleton by a living woman.
Hittite law from the 16th century BC through to the 13th century BC explicitly permitted sex with the dead.
In what is now Northeast China, the ethnic Xianbei emperor Murong Xi (385–407) of the Later Yan state had intercourse with the corpse of his beloved empress Fu Xunying, after the latter was already cold and put into the coffin.
From the first century AD to the eighth century AD, the Moche ruled the northern coast of modern-day Peru from the Lambayeque River to the Nepena River. They are famous for their huacas (large pyramids). Inside these pyramids, Moche artists painted murals dedicated to gods, religious practices, and dead Moche leaders. In the 1980s, archaeologists began uncovering Moche tombs, shards of pottery, and murals that depicted scenes that showed human beings having intercourse with animals and corpses. Tenderness with the dead is especially common in Moche artwork, leading some scholars to believe that the Moche performed sexual rituals with the dead during or after human sacrifices.
Gilles de Rais is noted to have sexually violated the dead bodies of his victims.
According to criminologist Herschel Prins, it was said that until the 19th century, if a betrothed girl in Central Europe died before her marriage day, the spouse could still carry out the ceremony by copulating with the body.
In a notorious modern example, American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was a necrophiliac. Dahmer wanted to create a sex slave who would mindlessly consent to whatever he wanted. When his attempts failed, and his male victim died, he would keep the corpse until it decomposed beyond recognition, continuously masturbating and performing sexual intercourse on the body. To be aroused, he had to murder his male victims before performing sexual intercourse with them.
Although the etiology is not completely understood, researchers and clinicians have developed a classification of necrophilia. What little research there is in the literature regarding necrophilia, clinicians and researchers have discovered that those who are necrophiliacs are homogeneous. For example, those who have the intense sexual desire to consummate with a corpse may not murder a victim, but instead use opportunity that comes with employment (such as a mortuary or morgue worker) or visit a cemetery to remove the body from the grave.
Where there are some SHOs who kill in order to obtain a corpse, some will use an opportunity to rape the victim after a homicide (perhaps following the commission of another crime), and some may commit sexual murder and again have sex with the corpse. On the other end of the necrophilic scale, there are also individuals who merely fantasize and role play; a partner playing the role of a dead corpse which can entail the use of make-up to give the appearance of death, having their partner take an ice bath, or the use of props like a coffin. This is where the suggestion of classifications to explain various necrophiles would provide researchers and clinicians the ability to study, assess, and treat with more accuracy and efficiency.
Forensic Psychologist Anil Aggrawal lists ten classes of necrophilia in Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (2009) based on increasing severity of disorder.
|Class I||Role players||People who get aroused when pretending their partner is dead during sexual activity.|
|Class II||Romantic necrophiliacs||Bereaved people who remain attached to their dead lover’s body.|
|Class III||Necrophiliac fantasizers||People who fantasise about necrophilia, but do not physically interact with corpses.|
|Class IV||Tactile necrophiliacs||People who are aroused by touching or stroking a corpse, without engaging in intercourse.|
|Class V||Fetishistic necrophiliacs||People who remove objects or body parts from a corpse for sexual fetishes, without engaging in intercourse.|
|Class VI||Necromutilomaniacs||People who derive pleasure from mutilating a corpse while masturbating, without engaging in intercourse.|
|Class VII||Opportunistic necrophiliacs||People who normally have no interest in necrophilia, but take the opportunity when it arises.|
|Class VIII||Regular necrophiliacs||People who preferentially have intercourse with the dead.|
|Class IX||Homicidal necrophiliacs Necrosadists||People who murder someone in order to have sex with the victim.|
|Class X||Exclusive necrophiliacs||People who have an exclusive interest in sex with the dead, and cannot perform at all for a living partner.|
Classes VI and VIII are deemed to reflect the sexual homicide offender). The homicidal necrophiliacs are considered the most dangerous as they kill victims because of the need to have sex with a dead body and a number of serial killers including Jeffery Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen. Opportunistic necrophiles are not necessarily dangerous, given that they are happy to have sexual intercourse with the living, however if the situation arose—say in the context of committing a crime that resulted in the death of the victim—they would.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), recurrent, intense sexual interest in corpses can be diagnosed under Other Specified Paraphilic Disorder (necrophilia) when it causes marked distress or impairment in important areas of functioning.
Additionally, criminologist Lee Mellor’s typology of homicidal necrophiliacs consists of eight categories (A–H) and is based on the combination of two behavioural axes: destructive (offender mutilates the corpse for sexual reasons) – preservative (offender does not), and cold (offender used the corpse sexually two hours or more after death) – warm (offender used the corpse sexually less than two hours after death).
This renders four categories (A-D) to which Mellor adds an additional four (E-H):
Category A (cold/destructive), e.g. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer
Category B (cold/preservative), e.g. Gary Ridgway, Dennis Nilsen, Carl Tanzler
Category C (warm/destructive) e.g. Andrei Chikatilo, Joseph Vacher
Category D (warm/preservative) e.g. Robert Yates, Earle Nelson
Category E (dabblers) e.g. Richard Ramirez, Mark Dixie
Category F (catathymic — impulsively and explosively lashing out)
Category G (exclusive necromutilophiles) e.g. Robert Napper, Peter Sutcliffe
Category H (sexual cannibals & vampires) e.g. Albert Fish, Peter Kürten
Dabblers have transitory opportunistic sexual relations with corpses, but do not prefer them. Catathymic necrophiliacs commit postmortem sex acts only while in a sudden impulsive state. Exclusive necromutilophiles derive pleasure purely from mutilating the corpse, while sexual cannibals and vampires are sexually aroused by eating human body parts. Category A, C, and F offenders may also cannibalise or drink the blood of their victims.
The etiology of necrophilia is still poorly understood, especially in relation to sexual homicide. Biological theories suggest that severe headaches, and heavy alcohol can induce temporal lobe abnormalities (which have been associated with other paraphilias also) (Aggrawal, 2009). Psychoanalytical theories suggest “unconscious suppressed hostility toward parental figures and sadistic impulses to explore the mother’s body….The offender takes revenge on a ‘female figure’ (the dead female, symbolizing mother or spouse), by ravishing her” (Aggrawal, 2009, p. 300). However, to date the origins of necrophilia does not appear to be well understood or documented, and therefore further research is required.
Treatment for necrophilia is similar to that prescribed for most paraphilias. Besides advocating treatment of the associated psychopathology, there is little known on the treatment of necrophilia. There has not been a sufficient number of necrophiliacs to establish any effective treatments.
Jeffrey Dahmer (1960–1994) was one of the most notorious American serial killers, sex offenders, and necrophiliacs. His fascination with death was present from childhood, during which he reportedly owned a collection of various animal bones. In 1978, Dahmer killed the first of seventeen victims, later admitting to engaging in sexual acts with his victims post-mortem, as well as cannibalism.
Ted Bundy (1946–1989) was an American serial killer who raped and murdered at least 30 young women during the 1970s. He also confessed to participating in necrophilic acts, claiming to have chosen secluded disposal sites for his victims’ bodies specifically for post-mortem sexual intercourse.
Karen Greenlee (born 1956) is a necrophilic criminal who was convicted of stealing a 1975 Cadillac hearse at a funeral and having sex with the corpse inside of it. She worked as an apprentice embalmer in Sacramento, California. On 17 December 1979, she stole the hearse along with the body of a 33-year-old man that was inside. She was sentenced to pay a $255 fine and 11 days in prison.
In 1987, Greenlee gave a detailed interview called “The Unrepentant Necrophile” for Jim Morton’s (edited by Adam Parafrey) book Apocalypse Culture. In this interview, she stated that she had a preference for younger men and was attracted to the smell of blood and death. She considered necrophilia an addiction. The interview was held in her apartment, which was apparently a small studio filled with books, necrophilic drawings, and satanic adornments. She also had written a confession letter in which she claimed to have abused 20–40 male corpses.
Dennis Nilsen (1945–2018) was a Scottish serial killer and necrophiliac who murdered twelve young men between 1978 and 1983.
Following the death of his grandfather and his mother’s explanation that the dead are in a “better place,” Nilsen developed an association between death and intimacy, later finding posing as a corpse a source of sexual arousal. In 1978, Nilsen committed his first murder and enjoyed intercourse with the victim’s corpse, keeping the body for months before disposal. Nilsen was reported to have sexually abused the corpses of various victims until his arrest.