An easy death flag for a character can be their smell. A character who is close to death will often be noted as smelling of death. What "death" smells like however varies from series to series. It can be a rotting smell, a bitter smell, a sickly sweet smell, a dirty smell, etc. This trope is especially common in stories where the main characters are animals with keen noses, since it stands to reason that they'd notice the smell more.
Characters that are already dead also almost always smell of rot. Even some ghosts can smell.
Compare to Blood from the Mouth, Bitter Almonds, and Flies Equals Evil, for when the buzzing of flies indicates death. Related to The Nose Knows. Also may be related to those cases where No Dead Body Poops is very much an averted trope. Not to be confused with Wilting Odor.
This is a Death Trope, so spoilers ahead!
- The lyrics for "Rain" from the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack paints a strong picture of a man engaged in a massive fire fight — even more appropriate for when the song plays in the series where Spike finds himself in a shootout with many syndicate thugs. One of the lines of the song alludes to the smell of the dead bodies.
I don't hear a sound
Silent faces in the ground
The quiet screams, but I refused to listen.
If there is a Hell
I'm sure this is how it smells
Wish this were a dream, but no, it isn't.
- Early on in Inuyasha, Kagome and Inu-Yasha find themselves fighting a group of bandits. Kagome gets kidnapped and taken to the bandit leader, who she can sense has a shard of the Shikon Jewel. She mentions that the bandit leader smells of rotting flesh, indicating that the jewel shard was reanimating a corpse.
- In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, Saito and Batou chase after a Russian cyborg named Koil. They're able to eventually capture him, but when Saito approaches, he can smell rotting flesh, and notes that Koil must've been dead for some time but was being remotely animated through someone hacking his body.
- The Terminator: Over the course of the movie, the Terminator's flesh covering becomes more and more damaged, due to battle damage and its own attempts to repair itself. Unlike later movies, its flesh doesn't have a healing mechanism and begins to rot. In one scene, as the Terminator is looking through Sarah's address book, its skin is pale and yellowing and a fly is on its forehead, and a janitor stops outside its room and asks "Hey, buddy, you got a dead cat in there or what?" The Terminator responds rudely and resumes its chase.
- When Katana joins the group in Suicide Squad, Harley asks her if her perfume is this trope.
- Erin Hunter:
- Cats smelling of death isn't uncommon in Warriors. It's described as a bitter or sour smell. For example, Badgerpaw (who was only three months old) is noted to have had a sour smell when he died. He reeked of crow-food (rotten meat) and blood.
- Toklo from Seekers first notices this smell when his ailing brother Tobi dies. It's a sort of off, rotting smell. He however was too excited about seeing a bear die and seeing how spirits go into rivers that he didn't pay it mind. Since he realized the reality of what happened, he's become quite unnerved by the scent.
- Dogs in Survivors refer to spirits as "scents" because they associate scent with death. When someone dies, their spirits leave their bodies and their body's scent instantly begin changing.
- When Axel dies in A Dog's Way Home, Bella notes that his body slowly started changing scents throughout the night.
- In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry visits Bathilda Bagshot, he notices a horrible smell in the house. Bathilda seems ancient and in poor health. It turns out she was Dead All Along and being reanimated by Voldemort's dark magic.
- In The Bible when Jesus goes to bring Lazarus back from the dead, Lazarus' sister, Martha warns that he's been dead for four days, and will probably already have a foul odor.
- Inverted in the third Silverwing book: Griffin, a living bat who accidentally falls into the Underworld, is tipped off to this by the fact that nothing he encounters has any scent at all.
- Frequently observed in Michael Connellyís novels, as most of them feature at least one death scene. Harry Bosch recognized the odor of a body on his second day on the job when responding to a well-being check in the short story Angle of Investigation, and caught himself about to light a cigarette to cover the faint odor near the end of The Last Coyote before he realized what he was doing. One character remarks that all odors are particulate at a death scene, and this squicks out the others even more than the odor itself. Averted in The Crossing (2015) when Bosch is studying crime scene photos and notes to himself that as bad as the pictures are, at least they arenít multi-sensory.
- CSI-verse uses the rotting version a lot. The main characters often wince and/or hold their hands in front of their noses when confronted with the smell of decomposing bodies. Some specific examples:
- CSI: In a season one episode, a body so decomposed it's practically all liquid is found inside a large duffel bag. The scent attaches itself to Sara's pores and hair follicles so strongly that her (then) boyfriend almost gags just from walking up to her. She apologetically admits, "I smell," and goes home to shower and wash her hair with lemon juice in an attempt to remove the odor.
- CSI: NY:
- In "Outside Man", Mac & Stella enter the apartment of a missing man and ask each other "You smell that?" as they cover their noses. When they find the man dead in his bed, Mac comments that the sickly sweet aspect of the odor points to gangrene, throws the covers back and reveals the man's partially amputated leg which indeed had the condition, which led to his demise.
- In "Do Not Pass Go", Sid and Sheldon have the unenviable task of extracting a horribly decomposed body from a car parked on top of an abandoned high-rise in the summer heat. The combination of the stench and the condition of the body prompt usually calm Sid to exclaim, "Oh my God!!"
- In "Life Sentence", the badly decomposed body of a man is found tied to a canopy bed which has a great many car-type air fresheners hanging from it. All the first responders are wincing at the smell and Jo remarks, "Not even lavender and cedar can cover up *that* stench."
- Played for laughs in Dead Like Me when a Perky Goth band member flirtatiously tells Mason — an undead man and undercover Psychopomp, unbeknownst to her — that he smells of death. He crossly tells her that she doesn't smell too fresh herself.
- In Ep. 4 of Generation Kill, several members of Alpha platoon hold positions outside of the town of Al-Shatrah, next to a pile of dead civilians and discarded Army rations. One of them notes, "That's the death smell. That shit gets me hard."
- Pushing Daisies: One episode introduces a man obsessed with scents and odors, and he instantly takes an interest in Chuck and Digby, Ned's girlfriend and dog respectively that he brought back to life with his magic touch. He can smell that there's something off about them and wants to know what, as there's not much that he can't normally suss out through smell.
- In The Office (US), someone says that Creed "smells like death"; Creed says it's the smell of the Mung beans he keeps in his desk drawer.
- In In Strange Woods, when telling the story of finding Jacob's body, the first thing Howl remarks on is the smell.
- The only reason Killer Croc doesn't attack Batman in Batman: Arkham City is because he can "smell death on [Batman]," as a result of Joker poisoning him with his own TITAN-infected blood.
- Illnesses can smell, even to the human nose. Some doctors are able to detect diseases like typhoid fever or tuberculosis by smell. With their well-developed noses, trained dogs (and a few untrained ones) can detect cancer. If someone is rotting, then they'll usually smell even while alive.
- People who take gut wounds in the lower areas can often begin smelling of offal as their lower intestines begin leaking. Prior to surgery and antibiotics making gut wounds treatable, onion soup (which has a strong, notable smell) would often be used to test for a gut wound: The wounded would be fed onion soup and if they started smelling of onion, that was a sign their entrails had been pierced. At that point a Mercy Kill was really all that was left.