When someone passes away, their corpse typically begins to deteriorate right away, though effective preservation can stall the process.
When someone passes away, their body starts to decompose as germs infiltrate and cells wither. But how long does it take a corpse to completely rot away? When someone dies, their body begins to disintegrate as bacteria invade and cells senesce. But how long does it take for a body to waste away completely?
Even though the process of decomposition begins shortly after death, there are a number of factors, such as the surrounding climate, the acidity of the earth, and the type of coffin used, that can influence how long it takes for a corpse to become skeletonized. However, according to Daniel Wescott, head of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, a corpse interred in a standard casket typically begins to disintegrate within a year but may take up to ten years to completely do so, leaving only the skeleton.
According to Nicholas Passalacqua(opens in new tab), an assistant professor at the Forensic Osteology Research Station at Western Carolina University, a corpse interred without a coffin, which does not have protection from insects and other factors, usually skeletonizes within five years. Nicholas Passalacqua(opens in new tab), an associate professor at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station, claims that a body buried without a coffin, which is not shielded from pests and other elements, typically skeletonizes within five years.
Decomposition is a pretty simple process in and of itself. Once death occurs and oxygenated blood stops flowing, cells die; in a process called autolysis, cells release enzymes (especially those from the lysosomes, which contain digestive enzymes), which break down the cells themselves, as well as carbohydrates and proteins, according to “The Cell: A Molecular Approach(opens in new tab),” (Sinauer Associates, 2000).
According to the book “Evaluation of Postmortem Changes,” putrefaction, or the breakdown of biological matter without oxygen(opens in new tab), can cause some areas of a body’s epidermis to turn green about 18 hours after death. (StatPearls Publishing, 2022). This happens at the same time that bacteria in the belly start to quickly proliferate and produce gases that make the body bloat and smell. Human remains are frequently stored in freezers until it is time for burial because putrefaction accelerates in a warm atmosphere.
According to “Evaluation of Postmortem Change,” during this swelling stage, the skin can slide, boil, and marble, and within 24 to 48 hours after death, greenish-black blood vessels can be seen through the skin. The body’s organs and tissues eventually soften due to a process known as black putrefaction, which causes the bloat to eventually implode. Insects and bacteria then consume the body’s residual soft tissues, leaving only the skeletal remnants. According to “Evaluation of Postmortem Changes,” “decomposition significantly slows down at this [skeletal] stage, and it takes years or decades for the skeletal remains to disintegrate.”
Embalmers can remove the blood and other bodily fluids from a body and substitute them with embalming fluids they inject into the veins in order to slow the rate of decomposition. The bacterial activity that decomposes the body is stopped by these compounds, which serve as stabilizers. Despite being a prevalent practice, embalming is prohibited by some faiths because it is seen as a desecration of the corpse.
According to Wescott, if they are embalmed, it can significantly alter the situation.
He gave the instance of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was interred in 1963 after being embalmed, as an illustration. Wescott claimed that “his body was so well preserved” when it was exhumed for use as evidence in a 1991 murder prosecution that “they let his son in to see him.” He used the example of the assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was buried in 1963 after being embalmed. Wescott asserted that when his corpse was exhumed for use as evidence in a 1991 murder investigation, “they let his son in to see him” because “his body was so well preserved.”
Five to ten years is a more normal decay period for those who are embalmed and interred in coffins, he said. The flesh is gone by that time, leaving only bones. He stated that for those who are embalmed and buried in coffins, five to ten years is a more typical decomposition time. By then, only the bones are left; the skin has long since vanished. He stated that for those who are embalmed and buried in coffins, five to ten years is a more typical decomposition time. By then, only the bones are left; the skin has long since vanished. He claimed that five to ten years is a more normal decay period for those who are embalmed and interred in coffins. By that time, the epidermis has long since disappeared, leaving only the bones.
According to Wescott, the caliber of the embalming work also matters. He found that the embalmed body had skeletonized in part as a result of the coffin breaking down when he exhumed an embalmed corpse that had been interred 15 years prior to exhumation. After being interred for only a year, he unearthed another embalmed corpse that “looked like she just died, but had some mold growing on her,” he remembered.
Additionally, location can affect things. A casket will erode more quickly in acidic soil, exposing the corpse to the weather and animals that aid in the decomposition process.
There are a few additional aspects, according to Wescott, that most people overlook. In the open air, obese individuals initially decompose more quickly than others, but their rate of decay eventually slows down because maggots prefer muscular tissue to fat. Because both chemotherapy and antibiotics used before death eliminate some of the microbes involved in the process, they can both have a significant effect on decay.
Wescott suggested that the coffin’s lining may also have an impact on how quickly a body decomposes. Some fabrics have the potential to remove moisture from the body, which could speed up drying and even mummification. The body could become saturated in its own fluids and decompose more rapidly if the substance can retain moisture.