You hear the word. You read the word. And yet, if you are like many individuals, you really don’t know the true, comprehensive, most accurate definition of “decomposition.” Despite encountering the word with some frequency, you may not fully understand what decomposition means.

Dictionaries and the Word “Decomposition”

Dictionaries present very sterile and, frankly, not wholly helpful definitions of “decomposition.” Nonetheless, dictionaries provide a decent, and yet technical, starting point to understand what “decomposition” means.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines decomposition as:

“To separate into constituent parts or elements or into simpler compounds.”

In addition to this technical definition, this dictionary provides a very concise, and still not fully intellectually satisfying, secondary definition:


The Cambridge Dictionary has a more forceful definition of decomposition:

“To destroy something by breaking it into smaller parts.” is a website dedicated to proving a broad spectrum of information related to the sciences. The site provides definitions of decomposition in different contexts, including mathematics and biology. For our purposes here, we take a look at the biological definition of decomposition:

“Reduction of the body of a formerly living organism into simpler forms.”

Each of these definitions are accurate in regard to “decomposition.” However, in some very real ways, these definitions miss the mark on the reality of biological decomposition, including that associated with the remains of a deceased human being. In order to truly understand the meaning of decomposition, we need to venture a bit further. Before doing so, you need to be forewarned that coming to a clearer, truer understanding of what decomposition means, we need to step beyond the bounds of what people typically are comfortable discussing. 

The Real Meaning of Decomposition: It’s a Complicated Process

For the purposes of this candid discussion of the meaning of decomposition, we use the process associated with the human body following death., which provided us with one of our definitions of decomposition, goes much further than dictionaries and presents a more thorough discussion of this biological process. In order to understand the meaning of human decomposition, you need to recognize five distinct stages of the process:

The first stage of human decomposition occurs within the first couple of days following death. Even if left unattended, in most situations there is little apparent change in the outward appearance of a body. The fact that there may be next to no outward indication of decomposition at this juncture, the process is well on its way. Decomposition continues at the very moment any living organism dies. Bacteria contained in the body begin to breakdown the remains in order to sustain their own existence. 

The second stage, also known as the putrification or bloated stage, occurs after at about the end of the second day following death. At this stage, bacteria that previously had been isolated in the guts break free and storm through the rest of the body. This process results in the accumulation of gasses. In addition to the bloat, a strong stench can begin to be associated with the decomposing remains.

As the gasses build up, putrid fluids are forced from the cadaver. These fluids are forced from natural openings in the remains. In addition, skin further deteriorates. The deterioration of the skin results in fluids breaking through and draining outside of the body. This represents the third stage of the decomposition process.

By the fourth stage of the decomposition process, the soft tissue associated with the remains typically is completely gone. What is left are bones, hair, and cartilage. Liquid remains in and around the remains, a sticky substance associated with the decomposition process.

The final stage of decomposition is the skeletonization of the remains. Generally, dried or drying bones, teeth, and some hair is what remains in the fifth stage of the decomposition process. 

Encounters With Decomposing Remains

Armed with a better understanding of what decomposition means, you are not likely to come into contact with a human body very far into the process. A majority of people in Southern California and elsewhere in the United States only see human remains directly or shortly after a person dies or when prepared in some manner for a funeral or other memorial service. 

In some rare instances, a person comes into contact with what medically is known as an unattended death. An unattended death occurs when a person dies alone and his or her remains aren’t immediately discovered. Such a discovery typically is made by a family member or friend. For example, an elderly relative might die alone and some days pass until his or her remains are discovered.