What happens to the body after death?  Most of us in the Crime Scene Cleanup Industry have had the unfortunate experience of cleaning the remains of a decomposed body.  We know there’s an odor and a gooey sludge, but what actually happens to the body after death?

Obviously the first thing that happens when a body dies is the heart stops beating and the body temperature begins to drop.  After the heart stops beating, blood is no longer pumped through the body.  The capillaries begin to drain from the upper parts of the body and settle in the lower portions of the body.  Thus, if a body is lying on a bed, the front of the body will be pale while the back portion will turn a dark red color. What happens to the body after death?  In a living being, cells function both aerobically and anaerobically.  Upon death the cells of the body cease aerobic respiration, or the function that allows them to work with oxygen.  The cells now only function anaerobically, meaning they are only functioning without oxygen.  This is the catalyst for rigor mortis.  When muscles cells have no choice but to work anaerobically, they produce lactic acid.  This lactic acid and myosin fuse together to form a gel, which is responsible for the stiffness found with rigor mortis.  Depending on several variables, such as the weather and body activity before death, rigor mortis will set in between fifteen minutes and several hours.  The maximum stiffening of the body will generally occur within 12 – 24 hours.  The facial muscles are affected first, with other parts of the body soon to follow.   As cells eventually die, the body loses it’s ability to fight off bacteria.  This begins the process of decomposition.  Internal organisms become very active and begin to attack the digestive system.  Gases are created and the intestines explode.   This leads to the relentless attack of other systems in the body, which will decompose at different times after death.

The five stages of decomposition are:

  • Initial Decay – body appears to be fresh externally, however internally the decomposition has already begun
  • Putrefaction – body swollen from internal gases, smell of decaying flesh, change in body color
  • Black Putrefaction – body cavity ruptures. Flesh begins to turn black with a creamy consistency. Odor of decaying flesh very strong
  • Butyric Fermentation – body begins to dry out. A cheesy odor develops and mold becomes present
  • Dry Decay – body is nearly dry and the rate of decay slows

The rate and manner of decomposition is strongly affected by a number of factors. In roughly descending degrees of importance, they are:

  • Temperature
  • The availability of oxygen
  • Prior embalming
  • Cause of death
  • Burial, and depth of burial
  • Access by scavengers
  • Trauma, including wounds and crushing blows
  • Humidity, or wetness
  • Rainfall
  • Body size and weight
  • Clothing
  • The surface on which the body rests
  • Foods/objects inside the specimen’s digestive tract (bacon compared to lettuce)

What happens to the body after death is a complex process, which almost rivals the complex process of life.  Crime Scene Cleaners are often called upon to clean up the remains of decomposed bodies at different levels in the decomposition process.  Sometimes the cleanup is confined to a bed, mattress and box spring.  Other times the decomposition has affected the sub-floor and surrounding drywall.  In extreme cases, the gelled remains will penetrate the floor and ceiling of a lower room or basement, dripping on to the floor beneath.   Regardless of the severity of the decomposition, understanding the process of decomposition will help you to determine beforehand what type of a cleanup job you’re about to undertake.

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