Home > Pathology > The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

Author: Jack Claridge - Updated: 18 April 2014 | 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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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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