Home > Pathology > The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

By: Jack Claridge - Updated: 2 Feb 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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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
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
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