Human decomposition can be a troubling thing to contemplate. Nonetheless, life and death intimately are intertwined. Having at a least a basic understanding of what happens to a body after death aids in understanding the entire cycle of life and death, and how we are all connected to the world around us in a very basic way.
Depending on what research data is accessed, human decomposition is said to occur as a process that involves three to five stages. The most comprehensive approach to understanding what happens to a body after death is to consider human decomposition in five stages. Understanding these stages of human decomposition is necessary when an unattended death is discovered.
Factors that Impact the Rate of Decomposition
Before considering the five stages of decomposition, understanding factors that speed up the process are important. Factors that can accelerate the decomposition process include:
- Moisture in the surrounding area
- Temperature of the surrounding area
- Presence of insects in the neighboring environment
Stage One: Fresh State
During the Fresh Stage of human decomposition, minimal external changes to the body are detectible. This is because what occurs at this stage is internal and on the cellular level. The Fresh State of human decomposition lasts between one to two days, depending on the surrounding environment and the cause of death.
When a person dies, bacteria within the body lose their nutritional supply, which was provided via the blood stream. As a result, these bacteria begin to attack two primary organs in the body. These are the pancreas and intestines. Within the course of 24 to 48 hours, the bacteria (left unabated through refrigeration or embalming) will engulf these organs, resulting in the bacteria being released throughout the body.
Enzymes are released during this time period as well. These enzymes will further the breakdown of cells within the body.
Depending on where the person died, environmental factors can also come into play during the Fresh State of decomposition. Specifically, if the body is in a location where insects have access, these bugs way begin to lay eggs at or inside the remains. Flies are a prime example. They are attracted to even newly dead remains, are prone to lay eggs which develop into maggots.
Second Stage: Putrefaction State
The Second Stage of the human decomposition process is the Putrefaction State. The primary characteristic of this state is the advanced activity of bacteria within (and without) the remains. As mentioned in regard to the Fresh State, bacteria commence consuming the organs of the body, beginning with the pancreas and intestines. At the end of the Fresh State, these bacteria move to all parts of the body, attacking organs and other aspects of the remains.
This process results in the production of gases. In fact, over 30 different types of gases are produced by way of the process of bacteria attacking the remains.
These gases are released from the body. This is what causes the putrid odor associated with the Putrefaction State.
The machinations of the bacteria begin to cause profound changes in the appearance of the remains. The body will start to bloat, due to the accumulation of gases. The skin changes color from greenish to purple and ultimately to black in the next state.
The Putrefaction State is also the point in time at which the skin breaches. What this means is that the skin begins to pull apart or break open, releasing putrefied and hazardous fluid from the body. The breaches in the skin, and the associated release of hazardous fluid, underscore the need for unattended death cleanup, also known as biohazard remediation.
Finally, during this state, insect activity markedly increases. More insects will be drawn to the remains because of the odor and skin breaches. The Putrefaction State lasts between a few days to a week depending on environmental factors.
Third Stage: Active Decay State
The Active Decay State follows, also known as black putrefaction. As noted previously, it is in this state that the color of flesh turns black.
During the Active Decay State, the body loses most of its mass due to the final activity of bacteria and enzymes, but most particularly because of the high activity of maggots and other insects.
One of the most significant events of this state is that the abdomen will burst open, releasing a good portion of the remaining bodily fluids. These hazardous fluids will pool around the body and contaminate the surrounding area to what typically is a significant degree. The expanding contamination by hazardous bodily fluids must be addressed safely and comprehensively via an unattended death cleanup.
The Active Decay State lasts about 10 to 25 days, depending largely on the environmental factors mentioned previously. The state is considered over when the main remnants of the body are bones.
Fourth Stage: Advanced Decay
During the Advanced Decay State, the odor surrounding the remains dissipates. Insect activity lessens, and finally abates.
The body begins to dry, essentially preserving what remains. At this juncture, a thin was layer forms over the body, which biologically is known as adipocere.
Fifth Stage: State of Skeletonization
This state represents the juncture in the decomposition process at which all that remains are dried bones and, in some cases, dried flesh or organ remnants. Depending on the environment, the full skeletonization process can take upwards to two years to complete.