MUNICH — When police found the corpse in the bed of the master bedroom, it was already long mummified. For five and a half years, a mentally ill woman kept her dead mother in the mother’s apartment in Munich’s Blumenau district.

Now, as police and social workers try to reconstruct the case, a series of questions arise. How can it be that the authorities didn’t step in earlier? Why didn't the body decay? And did the retired woman, who died in March 2009 at the age of 77, die a natural death?

Meter readers who rang at the door regularly from 2009 didn’t report not seeing the old lady — simply following procedure that if no one answers, they just make an estimate of consumption for the heating bill.

Police spokesman Werner Kraus said on Monday that the autopsy had still not been completed, refusing to indicate whether there were suspicions of either murder or suicide. "We just can’t exclude any possibility right now," Kraus said.

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung sources, the 55-year-old daughter had a career as an engineer, but had taken early retirement. When her mother was still alive, the divorced woman tried to commit suicide and was thus known to the police.

What made her decide not to bury her mother is unclear, and the woman has since been placed in a psychiatric ward. Among the charges she faces are violation of burial laws. The police will also investigate if she had illicitly been receiving her mother’s pension money from 2009.

No flies

According to social services, building management contacted the Sozialbürgerhaus (or SBH, where social services are consolidated) on Oct. 31 because neighbors hadn’t seen the old lady for a long time. Everything happened very quickly after that. Orientation counseling at the SBH — the first port of call for new cases — was able to reach the daughter by phone in her mother’s apartment. She claimed her mother was bedridden and needed care, but that everything was otherwise in order.

The case was passed on to district social service offices which tried, at first with no luck, to establish contact again. When it emerged that the daughter spent part of her time at another apartment, a district social worker was able to reach her on Nov. 10. During their conversation, the daughter refused all offers of support, which made the experienced social worker suspicious. He insisted on visiting the mother and they made an appointment for Nov. 13.

When the daughter failed to show up for the appointment, the social worker called the police who had the apartment door opened. When the police found the dead woman she was covered to the neck with a blanket. Because of the blanket, flies couldn’t get at her body, explained Thomas Althaus, deputy head of death investigations with the criminal police. "That certainly helped to prevent putrefaction," he said.

According to Matthias Graw, head of forensics, mummification happens — among other circumstances — when a body dries out. Bacteria can’t function properly if there are no body fluids. Ideal conditions are dry, warm, moving air. Police confirmed that the daughter had kept her mother’s apartment impeccably clean and had aired it sufficiently. Apparently the mummification didn’t engender smells that would have alerted neighbors.

As for the daughter, "anybody who spends any length of time in a room that doesn’t smell particularly pleasant stops noticing the smell after a while," said forensic pathologist Graw.