What Is a Corpse? Overview of the Definition of “Corpse”

According to Cambridge University, “corpse” is defined as “a dead body, especially of a human.” Armed with this basic definition, which is consistent with how other resources define this word, there is still more information to consider when it comes to understanding what is meant by “corpse.” 

When Does a Body Become a Corpse?

Technically speaking, a human body becomes a corpse the moment an individual is dead. At the moment of death, the human decomposition process commences. At the heart of the commencement of human decomposition and the “creation” of a corpse is bacteria that begin to break down the body starting at the moment of death. 

Stages of Human Decomposition

In considering what is a corpse, a brief review of the human decomposition process is helpful. These stages of human decomposition are:

  • Autolysis
  • Bloating
  • Purification 

Autolysis

Autolysis is also known as self-digestion. The cells of the human body – ultimately the body itself – are destroyed through the action of bacteria and digestive enzymes. Bacteria destroys the intestines and pancreas, resulting in bacteria flooding throughout the rest of the body or corpse.

Bloating

During the second stage of decomposition, the body bloats. Gasses and liquids are released from the body as it continues to break down. This includes the breakdown of the skin, resulting in openings through which putrid and potentially biohazardous fluids leak. 

Putrefaction 

The putrefaction stage of human decomposition is the longest. This is when the larger structures in the body completely break down. For example, tissues liquify and what was the body or corpse loses its essential characteristics. The putrefaction process puts the body or corpse on a course to becoming nothing more than a skeleton. 

On a somewhat related note, there are misconceptions about the impact embalming has on human decomposition. Embalming does not stop human decomposition or the decomposition of a corpse all together. Rather, embalming merely slows down the human decomposition process. 

When Does a Corpse Stop Being a Corpse?

Although there is no technical moment when a corpse arguably stops being a corpse, that transition occurs during the putrefaction stage. Certainly, by the time only a skeleton remains, referencing human remains at this juncture as being a corpse is out of place and no longer accurate. 

On some level, ascertaining when a corpse is no longer a corpse is a semantical endeavor. However, it also can assist in demarcating a point in time when human remains are less likely to present a biohazardous condition. During the primary three stages of the human decomposition process, coming into contact with a corpse can expose a person to dangerous pathogens. Pathogens are substances that have the potential for causing serious and even fatal illness in human beings. 

Corpse Verses Cadaver 

Oftentimes people use the terms corpse and cadaver synonymously. Technically speaking these words are not synonymous. The word cadaver has a more specific meaning. A fair statement is that cadaver is a type of corpse. 

A cadaver is a deceased human body, or a corpse, that is utilized by physicians, researchers, medical students, and other scientists to study human anatomy. In addition, a corpse oftentimes is referred to as a cadaver when at a hospital or medical center for removal of organs and tissues to be used in a transplant process. Moreover, a human body typically is called a cadaver when at a medical examiner or coroner’s office for an autopsy and other forensic testing. 

The term cadaver is also rather frequently used in criminal and civil courts. With that said, corpse and remains are also utilized in courts of law. 

The history of use of cadavers for research and scientific advancement dates back to the third century AD in Greece. A pair of physicians started the practice of dissecting human remains or corpses to learn more about anatomy. The term cadaver (in Greek and also in Latin) developed during this general time period.

In the aftermath of the work done by these two physicians, anatomical dissection went out of vogue and even into disfavor. It wasn’t until the 12th century that it was somewhat revived. With that said, it wasn’t widely practiced at this point in time. 

By the 17th century, human dissection and the use of the term cadaver was more widespread. In fact, human dissection and the term cadaver have been in wide use since that point in history until the present time. 

On a final note, the term corpse is not commonly used when it comes to the work of funeral directors and funeral homes or overall funeral practices in the United States. In these types of settings, if a more clinical term is used in regard to a corpse, that word typically is remains. Indeed, oftentimes in body preparation and funeral associated situations, using any type of term like corpse or even remains is avoided entirely.