Introduction to Master in Human Taphonomy

Human Taphonomy focuses on the biological, ethical and environmental challenges associated with the decomposition of human bodies, including public health risks.

The Master in Human Taphonomy addresses these issues through interdisciplinary work using forensic, humanitarian and sociocultural approaches.

Specialised lectures and practical lessons are given by a variety of national and international experts.

The topics will be illustrated by practical demonstrations, visits and hands-on courses, one of them dedicated to real exhumations.

The programme includes individual research as well as group work, and ensures the acquisition of transferable skills in addition to specialised knowledge.

It is designed for students with a background in Medicine, Biology, Forensic Sciences or similar, and with experience surrounding the dead human body.

In short, this Master's programme offers:

  • Study of human anatomy; thanatopraxy, thanatology and taphonomy through the ages; archaeology and geolocation; forensic and humanitarian sciences.
  • Specific classes and methodologies on communication about human taphonomy.
  • A six month-long Master research project allowing students to shape their own specialisation.


The term « taphonomy » first appeared in the context of paleontology in 1940. While studying the processes involved in decay and preservation of organic matter after death, the scientist Ivan Efremov combined the Greek words taphos and nomos, meaning « grave / burial » and « law », respectively. Consequently, taphonomy is the scientific discipline focusing on the decomposition of organic material, from cessation of vital functions (death) to fossilisation and discovery of remains.


Human taphonomy must be understood as concentric spatial volumes, which are carefully investigated from the body itself to the surrounding environment. It includes the human cadaver and cadaver sciences, environmental sciences and the study of the Cadaver Decomposition Island (CDI, i.e., the direct surroundings impacted by the decomposing body and its fluids), and localisation sciences.

Beyond this tridimensional structure of techniques, human taphonomy must take into consideration the specific judicial, ethical and social context regulating the study of human bodies. These contextual aspects must be respected at all times, even when additional operational emergencies are necessary (e.g., humanitarian cases, disasters).


Forensic human taphonomy aims at identifying and documenting cause and circumstances of human death as well as estimating postmortem delay. It stands as a multidisciplinary forensic science based on the analysis of the cadaver, and its direct surrounding environment.

Humanitarian human taphonomy aims at identifying and documenting cause and circumstances in which death occurred for a group of individuals. It encompasses forensic human taphonomy and takes into account the ethical, legal, sociocultural, geopolitical and historical specificities of each event or disaster.

General human taphonomy aims at understanding and solving problems caused by dead bodies and their decomposition beyond forensic or humanitarian contexts. This may include anything from traditional archaeology to current environmental and professional challenges in funerary situations (funeral care, cemetery management, new sepultures, etc.).


Lectures and practical lessons are given on-site and through distance learning, by a variety of specialists from UNIL, CHUV and Unisanté, as well as international experts based in Canada, USA, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy and Australia amongst others.

For this Master, the University of Lausanne collaborates with the Swiss Institute of Forensic Taphonomy (SHIFT) of the University Center of Legal Medicine (CURML).

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 Prof. Vincent Varlet
Centre universitaire romand de médecine légale (CURML)

Head of the Master HT

Tel. +41 21 314 38 42

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