The Stages of Human Decomposition

The process of our bodies returning to the earth from which they came isn’t something we normally like to think about. In fact, we usually do our best to avoid it and our culture aids us by keeping death far away and out of sight.

Human decomposition is the process in which the organs and other tissue start to breakdown after death. There are five stages of human decomposition: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry/skeletonized. How fast a human body decomposes varies due to environmental factors. For instance, temperature, humidity and the availability of oxygen, as well as body size, clothing and the cause of death.

5 Stages of Human Decomposition

However a person died, whether from a crime or natural causes, there are five basic stages of decomposition humans and animals both go through as the materials we are made of return to the earth.

  • Stage 1 – Fresh
  • The breakdown starts as soon as the heart stops pumping blood through the body and death occurs. The body temperature starts cooling down to match the temperature of the surrounding environment and the blood follows gravity to the lowest point in the body. After 3-4 hours, calcium buildup in your muscles starts making them rigid. This will peak at 12 hours then be gone by 48 hours after death. It is also during this stage cell walls lose their integrity. Thereby releasing enzymes to process the tissues in the body and bacteria already present break down the intestinal walls. Most of the process at this stage is not visible from outside the body except for the blowflies laying eggs in openings of the body such as the nose, mouth, and any open wounds.
  • Stage 2 – Bloating
  • As bacteria process the body, gases are produced as byproducts. Without anywhere to go, the body becomes bloated over time until so much pressure has built up that the gas ruptures the skin creating new openings for flies and hastening the decomposition process. The maggots now hatched from the fly’s eggs feed on the surrounding body tissues.
  • Stage 3 – Active Decay
  • Most of the body mass is lost at this stage due to the breakdown of tissues, liquids, and the feeding of insects. Now spread out into the surrounding environment, this is the stage when the most insects are present.
  • Stage 4 – Advanced Decay
  • This stage begins when the maggots have left the body and most soft tissues have been processed. What remains are the tougher material including bones, hair, ligaments, and cartilage which chewing insects will then come to process.
  • Stage 5 – Dry Remains
  • At the final stage, only bones and perhaps some hair is left. Exposed to an outdoor environment, the bones lighten in color and are eventually buried in the earth.

Speed of Decomposition

Most people know that a body is usually refrigerated after death. This is to slow down the speed of decomposition before a funeral. Heat, on the other hand, will speed the process up unless the temperature is extremely hot and dry. In that case, the body dries out and mummifies. Other conditions such as the time of day a person died, whether there is contact with water or not, or whether they died indoors or outdoors will also change the speed of the decomposition process and determine what, if any, insects are present.

By knowing the decomposition stages, how quickly different species of maggots develop, and how the surrounding environment affects the process, we can be relatively sure of when a person died thereby giving some answers to loved ones and, in some cases, bringing the right person to justice.

Cleanup of an Unattended Death

Professionals should clean up unattended deaths. Regardless of the stage of decomposition, there will be some biohazards left behind. The remediation of the biohazards is necessary to ensure that the impacted area is safe – both mentally and physically. The unattended death and any resulting odor can begin to be cleaned up once the scene has been released by law enforcement.

Georgia Clean is the leading death cleanup company in Georgia. We are available 24/7 for emergency services, or if you have any questions specific to your situation.