Home > Pathology > The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

By: Jack Claridge - Updated: 19 Sep 2016 | 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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The may have found the location of the body of a 2 year old child who went missing 25 years ago. The body is believed to have been buried quite deep and the place is extremely hot and dry. Will they find skeletal remains or would they have decomposed by now.
Susie2shoes - 19-Sep-16 @ 12:11 AM
My mom died august 4th 2016 she was alive the 3rd for my brothers 17th bday so somewhere between the night of the 3rd an early morning of the 4th she passed I have yet to get any information about time of death and how she dies although reading this site I'm getting a pretty good idea am thinking murder.. her face was swollen and purple an changing black an her nose and mouthhad blood an such pouring from it what could you tell me about this r.i.p mommy
Audi - 14-Sep-16 @ 6:01 PM
I just wanted you to know how much I love your site. I'm a crime writer, so this information is gold. Thank you!
Sue Coletta - 10-Sep-16 @ 6:44 PM
My cousin was found in Colorado. He had been missing for 9 months Feb to August. How will the ME determine overdose vs murder?
Barbi - 2-Sep-16 @ 5:11 AM
My grandfather hadn't gone to church in two weeks and they checked on him only to find a strong odor on the front porch. They found the body in the bed room upstairs. We live in Texas so it gets hot. How long would it take for a body to start smelling that strong.
Stressed - 29-Aug-16 @ 2:50 AM
I put my question on line to get a real response not just to vent.So please show me examples of what my husband may look like.
Auntdea - 27-Aug-16 @ 11:45 AM
My husband was shot and killed in a hunting accident 5 years and 9 months ago.What would he look like after year 1, year 2, year 3, year 4, year 5 and now based on the rate of decay.He was buried in a casket and vault.I am curious....thank you
auntdea - 27-Aug-16 @ 11:40 AM
Hi i just lost my much loved dad a week ago. I like most have a morbid sense of what my dads body will be like. But ive come to the conclusion its just a waste body. My dad s soul is free with my beloved mother. Please think of your loved one has you knew them not a green black gooey smelly mess.Your loved one is behond caring and in your heart and thoughts will be the same has when alivecherish what you had. Believe me its just a body that carried a soul which now is free.
Sands - 21-Aug-16 @ 2:29 PM
My dad past away from a heart attack18days ago should I view his body?
Sky - 20-Aug-16 @ 6:14 AM
How is four months old dead body look like?
Mica - 17-Jun-16 @ 4:00 PM
Lee - Your Question:
The only bad thing here is that you have questions with no answers. Why arent these questions being answered?

Our Response:
We oversee the site, but the questions are quite difficult to answer due to the sensitive subject matter. We have to tread carefully, as answering questions such as what someone's loved one may look like as a corpse, may actually do more harm to that person's psychological wellbeing than good.
ExploreForensics - 15-Jun-16 @ 10:00 AM
The only bad thing here is that you have questions with no answers. Why arent these questions being answered?
Lee - 14-Jun-16 @ 6:27 AM
My best friend passed away on 8.11.14 due to accidental overdose.. I was just wondering what she would look like now? Whenever i try to think about her, thats all i can think off & I try reading up about it but it doesnt give me a great insight to it!
becka - 9-Jun-16 @ 11:06 AM
In a zombie apocalypse how long would it take for a zombies brain to decompose? I am watching the walking dead and thinking if trama trauma to the brain kills a zombie, why are there still hordes of zombies roaming around years after the outbreak. Do zombie brains not decay? And has anyone ever wondered why there is not a plague of flies following the zombie hordes?
Z - 22-Mar-16 @ 9:51 AM
I am following a story in local news papers where investigators are digging up a Houston field. Some facts point to a 20 year old case.Are there any odds that they could find bones or anything if there was no coffin? Houston soil varies but is often high in clay.I don't think any trees were in that field. Should bones remain?
hopeful - 17-Mar-16 @ 10:37 PM
I lost my father over ten years ago and my mother passed this last November I was with both when they passed and I often wonder what stage their bodies are in now. Are they just bones or are their bodies preserved in death by the fact that they both had very good stainless steel caskets and very good vaults that were all sealed well.It bothers me to think of them as no longer looking as they did in life.I feel as tho the body stays intact if well embalmed and would turn to dustunless the casket were to be opened and once the body is exposed to air would then turn to dust.. Where are the answers available to this information.I believe that the spirit of the deceased is in Heaven and just the body is left behind.
jan - 3-Mar-16 @ 4:52 PM
Does a body badly decompose in 24 to 48 hours
Mack10 - 2-Feb-16 @ 11:29 AM
I lost my only real friend to cancer and I just sit here at the cemetery wondering how and what she looks like..I can't think or want anything more than to be with her..its been since 7/20/2012. I just want to know in what stage is she in?
Willie - 21-Jan-16 @ 5:17 PM
I found half of an arm, from the elbow down, on a beach in Ireland. Mostly bone and cartilage holding it together. It was taken away in a body bag. Please tell me how long will it take to get dna from the bone Or what is possible these days ? I understand they may never trace the person but live in hope. JC
JC - 12-Jan-16 @ 1:22 AM
Hi, I'm a writer and I need some information for a novel I am working on. My character stumbles across a body that has been inside a building for about 3 months. The building is off the grid solar powered and has been abandoned for 3 months during the months mid May - mid July. May and June avg temps 70-80, July 80-85. Can I assume that this body would be mostly a skeleton with likely no odor? Thanks!
sjack - 10-Jan-16 @ 2:47 AM
Pearl - Your Question:
Really interesting and descriptive article. I'm taking a course in forensic so this is a very useful piece of information for me. Thank you.

Our Response:
We are glad it could be of use.
ExploreForensics - 8-Jan-16 @ 11:12 AM
Really interesting and descriptive article. I'm taking a course in forensic so this is a very useful piece of information for me. Thank you.
Pearl - 7-Jan-16 @ 1:50 PM
my brother was found dead after 4 days in a hotel, after the autopsy was done it showed ethanol was .41%, but he didn't drink. Can a deceased body build this up or how does this happen? Is this a different type of alcohol?
susie - 30-Dec-15 @ 3:18 AM
I lost my best friend due to suicide about 6 months ago. I cried over his casket. It was the last time I ever got to see him, and this might sound weird but I wonder what he looks like now. He possibly was buried in willow. Answers?
AnxietyShxt - 17-Dec-15 @ 1:14 AM
Whoa. Some macabre folks up here!
Smedley Butler - 7-Dec-15 @ 5:23 AM
My younger Sister(only sister) was found dead in her apartment. Awful smell and bodily fluids on bed. I didn't see her. Coroner's first estimate of death was 3-4 days prior to being found. I believe it was longer like 7-8days. My question is what does a body look like at 7-8 days deceased....? I didn't get to see her. I need to know
amy - 29-Nov-15 @ 3:54 AM
My dad passed on the 12th of September, he died of a heart attack. It was a complete surprise, because I tried to keep him as healthy as I could. I'm still devastated by this. We buried him on the 28th of September, not my choice of date, but it's whatever. Honestly, he wasn't even that unhealthy! Yes, he drank beer, and enjoyed rice. But he took his pills and was pretty active. He ran a restaurant and enjoyed fixing cars. Plus, he was only 45.. I'm 16 by the way. But yeah, I'm not sure if this was appropriate or not, but I'm curious what state his body is in right now. I think we used Oak for his casket.
misssyu - 28-Oct-15 @ 4:33 AM
@Knot head- A solid oak coffin will hughly slow down the process. However, unless they are hermetically sealed, caskets do not preserve bodies. Sealed caskets can aid in preservation by greatly slowing decomposition and they protect corpses from water, the weight and shifting earth and insects etc.
Aaron - 27-Oct-15 @ 10:36 AM
How long does it take for a body to decompose if they are in a well sealed casket?
knot head - 26-Oct-15 @ 2:43 AM
To those who are looking for a realistic "zombie" answer please consult the FBI's studies involving body decomposition.Everyone is relying on an environment not laden with weather changes (rain, high wind, heat, cold) and wild animals.Moving or not, a scavenger animal would eat the flesh, maggots and other insects also need consideration.Really macabre asking about what a loved one would look like after death.Not healthy!!
Giggity - 9-Oct-15 @ 9:46 PM
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