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The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

By: Jack Claridge - Updated: 5 Oct 2015 | comments*Discuss
Decay Corpse Crime Scene Blood Body

The rate of decay within the human body after death is normally split into two distinct categories. These are:

  • Autolysis: A process of self-digestion where the body's enzymes contained within cells begin to go into a post death meltdown. The process can be speeded up by extreme heat and likewise slowed down by extreme cold.
  • Putrefaction: Bacteria that escape from the body's intestinal tract after the deceased has died are released into the body and begin the process of literally melting the body down.
If you are of a nervous disposition you may choose not to read on.

What is Putrefaction?

Putrefaction follows a predetermined timetable in nature and after the first 36 hours the neck, the abdomen, the shoulders and the head begin to turn a discoloured green. This is then followed by bloating – an accumulation of gas that is produced by bacteria toiling away within the deceased. This bloating is most visible around the face where the eyes and the tongue protrude as the gas inside pushes them forward.

As the body continues to putrefy, the skin blisters, hair falls out and the fingernails of the deceased began to sink back into the fingers. These skin blisters are also filled with large amounts of liquid just as in a blister you might get from running or walking too far.

The body's skin tone then becomes what is known as 'marbled'; an intricate pattern of blood vessels in the face, abdomen, chest and other extremities becomes visible. This is the result of the body's red blood vessels breaking down, which in turn release Haemoglobin.

As the process reaches its conclusion, the body will now be almost black-green and the fluids – known as purge fluid – will drain from the corpse. This happens normally from the mouth and nose but can also occur from other orifices. The body's tissues then begin to break open and will release gas and other fluids in the same way as a fruit that has been left too long in the sun.

It is also important to note that the internal organs of the deceased will begin to decay in a particular order; beginning with the intestines, which as well as holding bacteria also hold various levels of acidic fluid which – when unable to circulate – begin to eat through their surrounding tissues. As the intestinal organs decay so too do the liver, kidneys, lungs and brain. The contents of the stomach may also slow down the rate of decay if there is undigested food in and around that area.

The last organs to give way to decay are the prostate and/or the uterus. Again, this may sound all very unpleasant but it is a natural calendar of events for the body to go through and one which the pathologist and Scenes of Crime Officer (SOCO) will find useful in their quest to Determine the Time of Death.

Be aware also that hot temperatures will speed up this process, while cooler temperatures will slow it down. Also, a person who has died with a septic wound will suffer the effects of putrefaction faster, as the bacteria from sepsis spreads quickly and does damage on a larger and faster scale.

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I'm a writer (not crime fiction!) and would be very grateful for expert info on this: what state would a body be in after 5 -6 months, unburied, in deep woodland in a cool climate such as Scotland? I'm assuming that there would have been a fair bit of predation - how much flesh, if any, would be likely to be left?
Fionamarg - 5-Oct-15 @ 11:19 AM
I lost my dearest closest friend yesterday..Her death came as a shock..but unfortunately not a complete surprise..she had a demon on her by way of alcohol..She knew her liver was in bad shape because a recent trip to the E.R. she was told her enzime levels were extremely high.I totally believe she thought this was something she could pull herself up out of..unfortunately it was NOT!! My LOVELY caring compassionate friend died..unexpectedly she succumb to the disease of alcoholism...So very very Sad..we all are in shock..I MISS HER SO VERY VERY MUCH...SHE WILL BE MISSED BY SO MANY PEOPLE!!! It is theae words i truely want others to take to heart..IF YOU HAVE SOMEONE YOU LOVE SUFFERING FROM THIS DISEASE. PLEASE.PLEASE. GET THEM THE HELP THEY NEED..EVEN IF IT MEANS OFFENDING THEM OR THEIR FAMILY!! A persons life could depend on the choices YOU make for their own good...I LOVE YOU KRISTEN.PEACE
A.J. - 24-Sep-15 @ 5:17 PM
I lost a friend in Oct, of 2013, so with it being nearly 2 years since he passed, I'm curios to know what he looks like now..
friend18 - 1-Sep-15 @ 10:29 AM
hello sir, i lost my mother in 2013 october and its now reaching 2 yearsi went there now i felt in tears,is any thing left there now in graveyard.
KUMAR - 16-Aug-15 @ 3:27 AM
Iost my oldest sister in February and it's killing because I lost my brother just 7 months and 2 days before that he was cremated but not my sister and really wanna know what her body looks like now it's been 6 months I know it's a weird question but it's bothering me not know
det - 8-Aug-15 @ 12:45 AM
Please, I wish to know how a five day old corpse looks like. I'm a writer and need the info for my novel. Thanks.
Vikky - 5-Aug-15 @ 7:23 PM
@needanswers - I'm sorry to hear you lost your mother in this way. However, I'm afraid we can't really answer such questions. The coroners report will give the most accurate report, anything beyond that would be pure supposition and guesswork, and certainly not based upon fact.
ExploreForensics - 4-Aug-15 @ 10:16 AM
Hi I've just read the coroners report from my mothers death in 1985, I was 3 at the time.. trying to get some more answers and hopefully some closer. She had been in the house for approx 2 weeks.. it was nearing the end of summer. my question is.. is it a normal occurrence for a thumb to be "degloved" and the bone visible and the nail and finger tip to be unattached from the thumb during normal decomposition? she was fairly advance by the sounds of it... her skull was pretty well empty from the flies... flesh falling away etc... but it says her hands and feet were black and blistered... just sounds a little odd that one thumb was degloved? some internal organs were still intact and bale to be tested etc..to my knowledge there was no animals in the house. Any insight would be great.. Thanks.
needanswers - 1-Aug-15 @ 5:13 AM
@Monie - I am sorry to hear of your ex's death. I'm afraid there is no estimating this without more information. However, I imagine the post-mortem will answer your question more fully.
ExploreForensics - 31-Jul-15 @ 10:01 AM
I found my ex husband on 7.17.15 I had been trying to get a hold of him for a month. So on 7.17 I went to his home. I knew immediately something was wrong. I called 911,the police made entrance only to find my Paul had passed. His last bank transaction was on 6.22 and no neighbors saw him for for weeks.I'm trying desperately to pin pointthe day he passed away. I saw a glimpse of him very dark skin, liquid surrounding him and of course the odor. With that picture I believe he laid passed away for 3 weeks prior to me finding him. Do you think as a matter of opinion it could have been 3 weeks?I'm left broken hearted!He left behind 4 wonderful children and we just want to know. Thank you Simone
Monie - 30-Jul-15 @ 7:26 AM
I'm also sorry for all of your losses , may you all find comfort and peace! I'm trying.. Thanks for listening. GOD BLESS!!
Rae Rae - 22-Jul-15 @ 11:15 AM
My cousin who was more like my sister passed away 5-13-2015. I'm going crazy thinking about her being "dead" and it may sound morbid but I think of what she looked like when she was found (6 to 10) hours after she passed.. Her Casket was closed, I wasn't able to see her because I got to the funeral home 5 minutes to late. At first I was really upset that I couldn't kiss her forhead or cheek and tell her I love her and "until we meet again." Her death was unexpected and she had just turned 34 in January and left her beautiful almost 8 year old daughter behind. But then I started to realize I probably didn't want to remember her that way, so in my heart and thoughts she will stay. Until we meet again, my Angel. But I can't stand the fact that she's in a casket 6ft under ground in a cemetery! It drives me crazy!! Ily and miss you L.M.M R.IP. fly high Angel!!
Rae Rae - 22-Jul-15 @ 11:10 AM
I am sorry to hear all your losses, my Grandmother passed last July 31st 2014, I was with her right till the end. Sounds awful but I just couldn't stop looking at her thinking it's not real she's just asleep. It wasn't until we went to visit her at the funeral house it sunk in, seeing her was an experience as I have never had to deal with death before. Ever since I have had dreams where she's come back and then passes over again. We were so close. But I would also like to know what stage is her body at, it's no strange question, I think it helps with the grieving process x
Linzy1981 - 21-Jul-15 @ 3:58 PM
My dad has been passed away for two years I wondered what his body would be now
none - 15-Jul-15 @ 4:35 AM
@Sid - I'm sorry to hear that this question 'haunts' you, and it is not one that I really want to answer as I'm not sure clarifying it would make it any better, it could make it worse for you. If this issue does have an effect on you, and you think about it frequently, it might be that you have some unresolved issues surrounding your father's death and it might be worth discussing this with other close family, or even your GP who could recommend some counselling in order to help you come to terms with the loss of your father.
ExploreForensics - 13-Jul-15 @ 9:58 AM
Hello, I have a bit of an odd question. My father died on June 22, 2003 when I was 3 years old. I'm not sure exactly what day he was buried, but it's been approximately 12 years and I want to know how decayed his body would be. I'm not sure why this question haunts me so much but I think about it often and it would be really helpful if you could give me some insight. Thank you.
Sid - 10-Jul-15 @ 12:10 AM
I just found out the reason why my mother did not have a closed casket.I knew her reason for death; however, I just found out that her body sat in 90+ weather for an entire week.I am devastated and it pains me to imagine her left in a cornfield with no one in sight. This happened when I was 11; and at 33 this is shocking me.
Jewie - 18-Jun-15 @ 9:24 PM
Received call my brother was found expired in his bed, this was on Thursday morning, after his colleagues grew concerned. The last confirmed communication he had was on the Friday before, when he said he was very sick, a cold. The medical examiner said foul play was not suspected and that TOD would be recorded in correlations with when he was found. Medical examiner said the ground keeper had reported that he THOUGHT he saw him on Monday, although I am having a diffucult time believing that. Is this a normal practice? Would there be some decomposition variance between 3 days and 6 days?
lin - 27-May-15 @ 6:58 PM
will teeth get putrified after death????? if yes then after how many days(years)???.. i read in a book that bone is last organ to get putriefied... not mentioned abt teeth.... waiting for ur reply.. Thank u:-)
srgksat7 - 27-Apr-15 @ 6:52 AM
My MIl passed away and was not discovered for 5 days. This has been difficult for us to understand. We didn't see her body.
Amy - 21-Apr-15 @ 8:06 AM
@Leesa - I'm sorry your friend died. It must have been very difficult for you to find her and it is obviously playing on your mind. I think you should take the advice of those who say she died when she did, especially if they are officials who have specified this. You may also want to speak to SOBS (Survivors Of Bereavement by Suicide), which is a self-help, voluntary organisation, link here. Many of those helping have, themselves, been bereaved by suicide, so will be able to give you some support and advice. I hope this helps.
ExploreForensics - 20-Apr-15 @ 10:41 AM
Hi my girlfriend and son died on the 18/03/2015 they were buried 03/04/2015 what would they look like now
jbrechin - 18-Apr-15 @ 1:27 PM
Hi My best friend hung herself recently when found the police said she had bn dead for a while. I can't find out when she died , the last contact was Saturday and she was found Wednesday. If she died Saturday would there of bn a strong smell in her house. As there wasn't as I was there when found. I need to know when she diedto move on but every just says she died Wednesday when I found her. Her eyes were sunken ,no bloating to her face her lips and around mouth were blue/black. Her skin white in colour. Please help me
Leesa - 17-Apr-15 @ 11:24 AM
@StephanieB - the hospital records at the end of her bed should tell you when she was last checked.
Rick - 15-Apr-15 @ 11:07 AM
Hi there, this is just a question relating to the early stages of death. My mum died unexpectedly while being cared for by a hospital establishment in December. There are presumptions that she was left without being checked on but the coroner declared her death without inquest and also declared her legal time of death at the time she was discovered. He also said that he ccouldn't determine a time of death or even an approximate time of death but that she would have passed at some point between 11pm and 8:30am when she was discovered. My query relates to suggest she was left for a longer period before being discovered and what I would like to know is, upon death does your oesophagus or airway close up completely and if it does... At what stage would this occur? Any other information based on this situation you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks, Mr S. Brewitt.
StephenB - 12-Apr-15 @ 3:40 PM
The rate if decomposition, while buried, depends on: where they are buried,type of coffin, and vault the coffin is buried in. Some areas are filled with water underneath,some are clay, some sandy. Vaults are what coffins are stored in when buried. They prevent the ground from crushing the coffin, water from getting in. They can be made of anything from concrete to polyethylene. There are even bottomless concrete.
wmc - 27-Mar-15 @ 3:29 AM
@JOE F When buried in a coffin the body can take around 10-15 years, depending on type of wood used, i.e the more airtight the longer, for example a solid oak coffin will slow down the process. If the ground is heavy clay this also halts the process because the air is not getting to the deceased.
Rich - 26-Mar-15 @ 2:02 PM
I am in my early 70's and am trying to decide between normal burial and cremation. my question is this, when one dies they are normally embalmed with chemicals put in a casket, sometimes also put in a concrete vault and covered over with dirt, at this point how long does it take for the human body to decompose including the bones(ashes to ashes and dust to dust). Any information would be helpful in making my decision
JOE F - 24-Mar-15 @ 5:04 AM
Daddy, forgive me..We were ready to get him home, but he slow breath..I got home.Ambulance came, he stop breath..I must stay with Him!Nursing home send me home.. I was not there for dad at 30 last minutes of his life..He was in good mind, with oxygen..
Ilan. - 10-Mar-15 @ 9:09 AM
For those who did nor see thief relitives after they died. This is a good thing. This is not how you want to remember them and not how they want to be remembered. Be thankful not regretting not seeing them like this. Sorry for your loss.
knowitall - 1-Feb-15 @ 3:02 PM
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