The one universally common factor about life is the eventuality of death. With death, comes decomposition. Because every once-living being will be subjected to the decomposition process, understanding what that involves is important. Thus, this is a candid discussion of the definition of decomposition.

Global Scientific Definition of Decomposition

The broad scientific definition of decomposition is the process by which all organic substances break down into simpler organic matter. Technically speaking, decomposition is part of what is known as the nutrient cycle. It is vital as the means of recycling the finite matter that occupies the physical space in what is known as the biosphere. 

Scientifically, no two biological organisms decompose in the same manner. With that noted, all once-living organic beings undergo the same sequential phases of decomposition, which are discussed in a moment. A full definition of decomposition depends upon having a decent grasp of these stages of the process. 

There is, in fact, a specific name given to the science and study of decomposition. The science of the study of decomposition is taphonomy. Taphonomy is derived from the word taphos, which means tomb in Greek. 

A Closer Look at Animal Decomposition

Because we are part of the animal kingdom, when it comes to exploring the definition of decomposition, narrowing the focus of the exploration is appropriate. Thus, we’ll focus on animal decomposition in the further exploration of the definition of decomposition.

A key element that defines animal decomposition is when the process commences. Animal decomposition, including that associated with human beings commences at the moment of death. 

Refining the Definition of Animal Decomposition

Two primary factors govern animal decomposition. These are:

Autolysis is the process by which tissues in an animal break down. Internal chemicals and enzymes contained within an animal’s body break down tissues, which is autolysis. 

Putrefaction is also the breaking down of tissues in an animal’s body. The putrefaction process involves the break down of bodily tissues by bacteria contained in an animal’s body. 

Detailed Look at the Definition of Decomposition: Five Stages of Decomposition

Rounding out the definition of decomposition mandates a consideration of the five stages of the process. The five stages of decomposition are:

  • Fresh Stage
  • Bloat Stage
  • Active Decay Stage
  • Advanced Decay Stage
  • Dry Remains Stage

Fresh Stage

Fully understanding the definition of decomposition requires a clear understanding when the process itself commences. Among animals, the moment a heart stops beating, decomposition and its fresh stage starts apace. 

The first phase of the fresh stage is known as algor mortis. This involves the body of an animal cooling or warming (as the environment dictates) to reach or match the ambient temperature. 

The second phase of the fresh stage of decomposition commences somewhere between three to six hours following death. In this phase, muscular tissues of the body become rigid and incapable of relaxing. This phase of the fresh stage of decomposition is called rigor mortis. (This is the phase of the initial stage of decomposition that most people have at least heard about on some level.)

Rigor mortis is not permanent. Many people wrongly believe it is. Over about one to two days, rigor mortis eases and the body of the animal becomes somewhat pliable again. 

During the fresh stage of decomposition, chemicals, enzymes, and bacteria contained in an animal’s body begin to break it down. For example, in a human, bacteria contained in the pancreas and intestines begin to attack those organs. Within a couple of days, these organs are consumed, resulting in the release of tremendous amounts of bacteria, bacteria that proceeds to flood the rest of an animal’s body. This usher in the second stage of decomposition. 

Bloat Stage

The bloat stage represents the point in time when the decomposition process becomes externally noticeable. As the name assigned to this stage indicates, animal remains begin to noticeably bloat at this juncture. This is the result of gasses building up in an animal’s body. 

Other changes in the external appearance of an animal’s body also occur at this stage. These can include discoloration of the skin of certain animals. In addition to visible changes at the bloat stage, foul odors associated with decomposition begin to be released from an animal’s body.

Active Decay Stage

The active decay stage is when the most significant amount of a dead animal’s body mass is lost. This occurs as a result of the chemical bacteria’s actions occurring with the body itself. It also is a reality because scavengers of different types begin to attack a body as well. 

Advanced Decay Stage

At the advanced decay stage, there remains little of what scientifically is known as cadaveric material. This is biomatter like flesh that is subject to decay. The odors associated with decomposition will have dissipated by this stage as well. 

Dry Remains Stage

The final element of the definition of decomposition is the last stage of the process. This is known as the dry remains stage. By this time, what remains of an animal’s body are generally dried bones. 

Having an understanding of the definition of decomposition provides you with insights on how the remains of an animal can be dealt with once this process commences. The decomposition process can create a biohazardous situation that necessitates the use of appropriate personal protective equipment and thorough, comprehensive remediation of any area potentially contaminated as the result of the decomposing animal’s body.