How long does it take for the body to break down?

The moment a person dies, their body begins to decompose as cells dry up and bacteria take over. But how long does it take for the body to completely break down?

Although the decomposition process begins within minutes of death, there are a number of variables, including ambient temperature, soil acidity, and coffin materials, that can affect how long a body takes to decompose.

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But on average, a body buried in a typical coffin begins to decompose within a year, but it takes up to ten years for it to fully decompose, leaving only a skeleton, Daniel Westcott, director of Texas State University’s Center for Forensic Anthropology, told Live Science.

According to Nicolas Passalacqua, an associate professor at the University of Carolina’s Forensic Osteology Research Station, a body buried without a casket, unprotected from insects and other elements, typically becomes skeletal within five years.

The decomposition itself is quite simple. When death occurs and the oxygen-rich blood stops flowing, the cells die; In a process called autolysis, cells release the cells themselves as well as enzymes (especially those in lysosomes, which contain digestive enzymes) that break down carbohydrates and proteins, according to The Cell: A Molecular Approach. “The Molecular Approach”, freely translated) (Sinauer Associates, 2000).

Decomposition, or the breakdown of oxygen-free organic matter by bacteria, fungi, or other organisms, can turn patches of skin green on a body about 18 hours after death, according to the book “Assessing Postmortem Changes.” “After Death”, free translation) (StatPearls Publishing, 2022).

It occurs at the same time when the bacteria in the abdominal cavity multiply rapidly, producing gases that cause the body to swell and smell bad. Decomposition is accelerated when the body is in a warm environment, so human remains are often stored in refrigerators until burial.

During this swelling phase, the skin may slough off, forming blisters and spots, where greenish-black blood vessels may be visible from the skin approximately 24 to 48 hours after death, according to “Assessment of Postmortem Changes. Dead.” Eventually, the swelling collapses and the body’s organs and tissues soften in a process known as black rot, and organisms such as insects and microbes eat away at the remaining soft tissue, leaving skeletal remains.


“At this stage, decomposition slows down considerably [do esqueleto] and skeletal remains take years or decades to decompose,” according to the book.

To slow decomposition, embalmers may remove blood and other fluids from the corpse and replace them with embalming fluids, which they inject into the veins. Acting as preservatives, these chemicals stop the bacteria that break down the body. Although embalming is a common practice, some religions forbid it because it is considered disrespectful to the body.

“If they’re baled, that can really make a difference,” Westcott told Live Science. As an example, he cited the case of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was embalmed and buried in 1963. When her body was exhumed as evidence in a murder trial in 1991, Westcott said, “Her body was so well preserved that they let her son see her. »

For those who are baled and buried in a coffin, 5 to 10 years is a more typical time for decomposition, he said. At this time, the tissue disappears and only the bones remain.

The quality of the embalming work also plays a role, Westcott said. When he exhumed a baled body buried 15 years ago, he found it partially skeletonized because the coffin had been torn apart. Another mummified body he exhumed had been buried just a year earlier and “it looked like it was dying, but it was growing mold.”

Location can also have an effect. If a casket is buried in acidic soil, it erodes more quickly, exposing the body to elements that aid decay, including insects.

There are other factors that most people don’t think about, Westcott said. In the external environment, obese people decompose faster at first, but then more slowly than other people, because the larvae prefer muscle tissue to fat. Chemotherapy and antibiotics used before death can also have a major impact on cavities, as both kill some of the bacteria involved in the process.

Interestingly, the lining of the coffin can also affect the rate of decomposition, Westcott said. Some materials wick fluids away from the body and can cause it to dry out and even mummify more quickly. If the material contains moisture, the body can absorb its own fluids and decompose more quickly.

via Live Science

Featured Image: Angelkoch/

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