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The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

Author: Jack Claridge - Updated: 27 March 2015 | commentsComment
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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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
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
My son was found dead on 30 July 2014.We think our son passed away on 28 July.I never got to see my Son.We live in a hot climate. Our son's Bedroom windows were closed & the Bedroom was extremely hot.What condition would our son have been in, as I never got to see him ??
ZOE110 - 29-Jan-15 @ 6:57 PM
My father likely died Nov.4 in Chicago in a cold bathroom.He was discovered Christmas day.The police would not allow my brother to see him to identify the body.Apparently his skin was stuckto his clothing and his legs had to be physical smashed down to fit in the bodybag, but beyond that I don't know.What would his appearance have been like after nearly 2 months in a small enclosed and cold bathroom.I just really want to know and feel like it would give me closure in a weird way.
Becky S - 12-Jan-15 @ 2:07 AM
I am an artist and writer and currently working on a character back story in which one character has been dead for about twenty-one months. Said character is a female of twenty-one years, who was murdered via strangulation with a belt, attacked from behind by a larger male. She was buried in a regular casket in a cemetery. I'd like to know the state of the body's decomposition after being buried like that for twenty-one months, as I also need to crate a visual for this project.
Teru - 22-Dec-14 @ 5:48 AM
I am a crime writer author of two books, and would like to know if organs are stolen and the body is found a year later, would the pathologist be able to tell if the organs were removed or would they just decay? Thank you for your valid information.
linda - 9-Nov-14 @ 5:37 PM
I am all for information, hence why I am on this and many other websites, but the comparison here: 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. Was really not needed!Surely you could have thought of another comparison. Just the same, thanks for the info.I need all the help I can get as a non-medical professional.
authorkristiambrose - 26-Oct-14 @ 3:07 AM
My Dad has passed away now 10 months ago.He is buried in the ground in a steel casket I was wondering how his body would look like now. And how much is decayed?
Blackie - 29-Sep-14 @ 8:24 PM
Fandom Rider - There will be delayed putrefaction and a distinctive smell.If there weren't any entomological species in the begining, then there isn't much else to look for.If there are then an estimated time of death can be calculated according to the stopped life cycle of the insects.
ForensicFever - 29-Aug-14 @ 6:43 PM
i couldn't find the information i need and no one i knew could give me a satisfactory answer. my dad was found dead in the bathroom on wednesday night, last seen on monday night. the bathroom has a full length door which was closed, and so is the window. the climate here is tropical with day temperatures reaching about 30C and night temp about 27C with high humidity. a small stream of water runs from a hose which reaches only his legs below the knee. in short, its a enclosed area with high humidity, but likely not air tight. he was found face-down, pale bloated skin on the back, a small amount of feces was out and from my point of view, there were black coloured blisters on the shoulder and upper arm area. i couldn't bring myself to go forward to look at his face and i am holding my mum steady. i hope you can tell me a possible or likely time of death if possible based on the above info. the official cause of death is a possible heart failure/cardiac arrest. unable to determine due to decomposition and no autopsy was done.
whathappened - 13-Aug-14 @ 4:10 PM
Hello! Im currently writing a review of an old Batman comic, and I have a question about what state a body would be in. From the looks of things, the person had been just been taken out of the fridge in the morgue when the whole place became abandonded. Fast forward three months, give or take a few weeks. Id imagine that bugs and such would be rather rare, and those three months would be rather cold. About what state would you estimate the body to be in?
Fandom Rider - 23-Jul-14 @ 4:24 AM
Hi , I am writting my dissertation on humanities relationship with clay, and as part of this I need to find out about the decomosition of bodies,relating to how the chemicals that make up ourbodies return to the earth. Can you help me in this, or suggest where to look? thank you, look forward to hearing from you
MUDDY - 22-Jul-14 @ 8:30 PM
@bbella: I'm sorry to hear of your loss. Hair does not break down very quickly and can survive for very very long periods of time. They may be other reasons for loss of hair. He may have shaved it prior to death as a dramatic way of changing his life condition. Another cause of hair loss is through the scatter caused by animal activity, which also can occur rather quickly. I'm sure there are other possibilities, but I think the real issue involves the denial we often feel after such a traumatic death. We often have trouble coming to terms with the loss we now feel. There will always be unanswered questions afterward that may never be fully answerable.
lock'emup - 18-Jul-14 @ 2:53 PM
My step son commited suicide last week..he was found in an abandoned consession stand outside temps reaching 100 degrees. He did from a shotgun shot to the head. He had blond hair down to his shoulders..but when he was found he'd been in this room (oven) 5 days...we were told that there was no hair on his body except the pubic area..no hair found at all from the head. Like I said previously he had long blonde hair..so my question is...does hair decay/decompose in 5 days in hot temperatures to the point of being non existent? If not can some one help me understand where the hair went? We never found any evidence of it being cut or shaven before either. Please help me understand. One more mystery I have is...we were also told that the body had absolutely no blood left it to draw DNA from. Can that happen? From a head wound 5days old? Where did the blood go too?..Please help
bbella - 10-Jul-14 @ 12:14 PM
Hi Everyone I wonder if anyone could please help me I’m in the process of writing a crime novel. Could any one advise me of the following.... my victim has been found she has a bite mark on her inner thigh.The body has been left for several months. Would the bite mark have DNA of the killer in it . Skin was not broken but marked with the perps teeth.PS Apologies if this is a silly questionThank you
candlegirl - 26-Apr-14 @ 8:18 PM
my son commited suicide by diving head first 12-14 feet on to concrete when seen by the nurse (time not known yet) he had a radial pulse. he was breathing spontaneously. so at this point he bp >90. his cord was intact. I think that if seen in the erin this condition he would have survived.i will get the time line of who did what,when.but since he waS DEAD ON ARRIVAL AT THE ER,IKNOW SOMEONE MESSED OP.docmed13
docmed13 - 18-Apr-14 @ 4:24 PM
Jack- I need to find an expert on decomposition in water. Body allegedly tossed in a river during summer, hot summers here, largely intact 9 months later so timing seems fairly unlikely. Who can advise on such things?
Sunny - 26-Mar-14 @ 1:13 PM
Hi! Thanx for an interesting page. I'm Writing a book about a phamous crimecase in Scandinavia, and I would like to hear you opinion about some things ... The victim (28 years old) was dismemebered and left on the ground in 4 thin plastic bags, and according to police and the medics, the reamins lay on the ground for 5 weeks (body parts were discovered at 2 different spots and dates) at one spot, and 2 months at another spot. Now, this seems to be incorrect, since the arms (dumping spot 2) hade blisters, the nails had not fallen of, and the flesh was not liquified, and on top of this, no rats or birds semm to have attacked the remains, that were dumped in the center of a big city, in vegetation, in summer. In my opinion, the remains should have been totally ruined, by bacteria, insects, rats, birds etc, but the remains were quite well preserved, and lungs and heart were intact ... the body was dismemebred in 8 parts (lower legs, thighs, pelvis, upper torso, head, arms), and since wounds speed up the rotting process, a dismembered body should be gone in absout 3 weeks, right?
Emon - 4-Sep-13 @ 2:51 PM
Stephanie, What you have there is likely the remains of a dead squirrel.Check around the outside of your house for small openings like where the shingles meet the roof, angles, vents.They can get in a hole the size of a dollar coin.Hope that helps.
Tempie - 17-Apr-13 @ 8:45 PM
I am writing a fictional story and I'd like to know, Can skin tissues be transplanted to a corpse? Will the tissue sticks?
Pawee - 4-Mar-13 @ 2:19 AM
Question. We bought a house 14 years ago and one of the spare bedrooms had a horrendous rotting flesh smell in it. We closed the room and used it for storage. 5 years ago the smell was still there, but just faintly. We rented the house to someone and moved out. A year ago we decided to move back. The room no longer smells, but my daughter was in there and this patch of black papery stuff fell out of the vent a little bit ago, it was covered in strawberry blond hair, none of us have this color hair and no one who has loved here has that color hair. The hair was matted to the black papery looking stuff by some brownish something or other. Can you help me out here? What is it????
Stephanie - 20-Aug-12 @ 5:35 AM
That last paragraph is the most important, as the conditions around the corpse are the biggest influences on the rate of decay. A body outside in the middle of a hot summer will decay at a far faster rate than one in the middle of a cold water, when everything is slowed down. However, in either case you'd need to be highly trained to be able to determine the time of death with any sort of accuracy, especially if the body's been there a while, and bodies in water also decay at a different rate.
Chris N - 4-Jul-12 @ 9:35 AM
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