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How long does it take a body to decompose?

The image of a decomposing human body is the stuff of nightmares for many. For years, it has been utilised in countless horror films, T.V. shows, and other media to great effect. Despite that, this natural repulsion is often times accompanied by considerable intrigue.

Morbid curiosity is what keeps us coming back to those same films, and leads ordinary people to begin questioning certain aspects of what exactly happens to our bodies once we’ve passed on.

Fortunately for us, scientists have handled the research on their end and can answer the questions that we have on the subject, namely the question that nearly everyone has wondered at one point or another: “How long does it take for a body to decompose?”.

What Is Body Decomposition?

Body decomposition is the process of breaking down of human remains into simple organic matter as time passes. There are a large number of factors that directly affect how a body decomposes, but they can generally be broken down into 2 main categories; time lapsed and environment.

The 5 Stages of Body Decomposition

When learning about out how long it takes for a body to decompose, it is important to also understand the 5 stages of decomposition in humans.

Stage 1 – Fresh

Immediately following death, the Fresh stage begins. In this stage, the body is cold but still intact. This is also when livor mortis begins, in which blood accumulates to whichever side of the body is pointing towards the ground.

Stage 2 – Bloat

The Bloat stage is named as such for one specific reason; bacteria inside of the body emit gases, causing the body to bloat. The skin can begin to turn green and black during this stage. The ghastly sight of remains exiting through the mouth and nose may also occur at this point.

Stage 3 – Active Decay

Throughout Active Decay, bacteria and insects, namely maggots, begin feasting on the human remains. Because of this, the tissue begins to liquefy causing a significant loss of mass, and an increased presence of biohazards.

Stage 4 – Advanced Decay

Most soft tissues are gone during Advanced Decay. If there is any skin remaining it has turned leathery and dry. By this time, the skeleton is visible. Other larger insects, such as beetles, help break down the remains during this stage, as they are able to decompose the tougher soft tissue.

Stage 5 – Skeletal Remains

This is the final stage of the decomposition process. Bones break down due to a variety of factors, including acidic soil, the flow of water, or being chewed by scavengers.

Timeline Of Body Decomposition

The following timeline generally demonstrates how long it takes for a body to decompose.

0-72 Hours After Death

  • Rigor mortis

  • Temperature drop

  • Cell death

3-10 Days After Death

  • Skin discolouration

  • Bloating

  • Liquid discharge

10-25 Days After Death

  • Skin blackens

  • Strong odour

  • Loss of most liquid

25-60 Days After Death

2 Months And On

  • Loss of remaining dried skin

  • Loss of hair and some teeth

  • Skeletonisation

Environmental Effects On Decomposition

The environment that the remains are left in greatly affects how long it takes for a body to decompose. If left in the cold, decomposition is slowed. A reason for this is that bacterial growth is much slower in colder temperatures, and in extreme cold bacterial activity can be near non-existent.

Conversely, in warm environments, the process is typically quickened. Heat aids in breaking down organic matter, as well as bacteria thriving in warmer temperatures. Other factors that can influence the rate of decomposition are sunlight, moisture, or if the remains are indoors, as is the case with many unattended deaths.


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