Death and taxes, they say, are the two certainties in life.  I find the process of doing my taxes an ugly one.  The natural process of death and decay is horrifying.  Thank goodness I won’t be around to watch my body after death turn into worm food.

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. —Edvard Munch

For those of you who are squeamish, you might consider checking out a less disgusting post on my blog.  If, however, you have a morbid curiosity and enjoy watching series such as “Bones” or “CSI” or you like reading books such as the Body Farm series then by all means read on. The trip from death to dust is horrifying but is definitely chock full of science. Click To Tweet  Here are 10 disgustingly horrifying things that happen to your body after death.

Rigor mortis and muscle contraction

Crossbridge cycling of muscles
OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, CC BY 3.0, via Wiki Commons

1.  Death Chill

As soon as your heart stops beating, blood stops circulating throughout the body. Your body after death begins to cool rapidly until it reaches room temperature.  This process is also known as algor mortis.

2.  Livor Mortis

Once your blood stops circulating, it is subject to the force of gravity.  Where you fall after death, how your body is positioned, determines where your blood will pool.  In those areas, your skin tends to develop a deep red-brown stain from the release of haemoglobin as the red cells burst.  If you were murdered, it is possible to determine if your body is moved by examining sites of livor mortis.

3.  Rigor Mortis

Within 2 to 3 hours after death, the facial muscles stiffen.  The bigger muscle groups follow within 6 hours of death and after 12 hours your entire body is locked in place.  The speed and length of time rigor mortis lasts is dependent on environmental temperature and other factors including your activity level just prior to death.  It can last up to 72 hours and then the body becomes pliable once again.

Rigor mortis is a chemical process  As long as calcium is in the cells, the muscle fibres remain contracted.  ATP, the body’s energy molecule is required to pump out the calcium allowing the muscles to relax.  When you die, ATP is no longer produced, meaning the calcium that flows into the muscle cells can no longer be pumped out. The calcium causes myosin-actin cross-bridging. Thus, your muscles, thus are in a perpetual state of contraction.  Rigor mortis disappears when the myofilaments decompose which occurs forty-eight to sixty hours after the peak of rigor mortis.

4.  Decomposition

For a few days after death, some cells such as skin cells are still alive.  So for a while, your body after death might look quite normal at least on the outside.  However, immediately after death, decomposition begins.  Your blood is no longer being thrust through your vessels, so the acidic fluids in your intestines stay put and begin to eat through the tissue.  Living bacteria, no longer kept in check by your immune system, begin to feed off and break down your cells.

The first signs of decay occur fairly quickly as a greenish tinge on your abdomen.  Without cooling or further processing, decay quickly spreads to your liver, kidneys, lungs, brain and lastly your prostrate or uterus.  Openings in your body eventually leak greenish substances.  Fairly quickly the stink of volatile chemicals such as cadaverine and putrescine, produced as your cell proteins are broken down, becomes overpowering.

Stages of Decay in Your Body after Death

  1. Initial Decay involves the self-digestion or autolysis of cells.  The immune system can no longer keep your internal bacteria in check and they start breaking down the cells.  Lysosomes within your cells contain digestive enzymes and when these organelles burst, your cells are digested.  Externally, your corpse looks okay, but internally your organs are breaking down.
  2. Putrefaction begins about 2 to 3 days after your death.  Those bacteria are really active and the volatile chemicals they produce cause your body to begin swelling with gases.  At this point your body really begins to stink.
  3. Black putrefaction happens next and at this time your skin has turned black.  Anyone touching your skin will see it fall off in sheets.  Your corpse will begin to collapse as the gases escape from any openings in your body.
  4. Fermentation produces very strong odors.  Mold may appear on your body and it begins drying out as much of the fluid in your body has seeped out.  The drying of your skin causes it to pull back from your nails and hair follicles making them seem as if they have grown.
  5. Dry Decay is the stage where your body is mostly a dried husk of its former self.  At this point the rate of decay has slowed considerably as there is little left for the bacteria to feed on.

5.  Color Changes

Once death occurs, your body will go through some interesting and progressively vivid color changes. Immediately after death because your blood stops circulating and pools to the lowest points of your body.  Your skin takes on an ashen color.  As decomposition progresses, your skin tone becomes greenish from decomposition fluids.  As the blood clots and then red blood cells burst, releasing haemoglobin, the body takes on a reddish tinge.  Further decomposition of haemoglobin and other compounds lead to a purple and finally black color.  These color changes begin in the lower abdomen and spread from there in a marble vein-like pattern.

6.  Smell

A decaying body quickly begins to produce a cloying odor.  Shortly after death, your body begins to produce a variety of volatile chemicals due to the actions of bacteria breaking down your tissues.  Some of these are quite potent in small quantities.  There are 4 chemicals which produce most of the nastiness living humans can detect.

  1. Cadaverine is only required in small quantities for detection by the human nose.  It is produced when the amino acid (make up the proteins in a living body) lysine is broken down.  It is a nitrogen compound, NH2(CH2)5NH2, that produces the typical odor of rotting flesh.
  2. Putrescine, NH2(CH2)4NH2 can also be detected in very small quantities.  It is very similar chemically to cadaverine, contributing to that rotten flesh odor but results from the breakdown of the amino acid arginine.  Interestingly, both of these compounds are produced by living humans as well and contribute to the odor of bad breath, urine and semen!
  3. Skatole gets its name from the odor it produces – that of faeces.  C9H9N is produced from tryptophan in the mammalian digestive tract.
  4. Indole, C8H7N,  has a mustier, mothball-like smell.  It is an aromatic, heterocyclic organic compound produced by the actions of a number of bacteria when they break down the amino acid tryptophan.

The following chemicals also contribute to the variety of corpse smells:

  • In the earliest stages of death, hexanal and butanol produce quite pleasant smells.  Hexanal has the odor of freshly mowed grass while butanol smells like leaf litter and the forest floor.  These same smells also are produced again during the skeletonization process.
  • A few days after death,  hexadecanoic acid, is produced which is said to smell like an ‘old person’s’ home.
  • During the bloat stage, when the bacteria in your decaying corpse are running rampant,  dimethyl disulphide and trisulphide, are present and produce the stench of garlic and rotting cabbage.
  • Once the active stage of decomposition is well along,  2-methylbutanoic acid – which smells distinctly of “cheesy feet” or teenage bedrooms – and trimethylamine, which is the aroma of days-old fish join the mix. In addition, butyric acid, which reeks of vomit joins the smelly party.

7.  Bloating

Your body eventually bloats, somewhat like a balloon, due to the build-up of gases created by the action of bacteria feasting on your body.  As your corpse expands, your eyes will be pushed up out their sockets, bulging at first.  Your tongue will also be pushed out of your mouth.  Not an attractive picture is it?

Super Weird Things that may happen to your Body after Death

  • Your body may speak.  Well it might not actually spew forth a Shakespearian monologue but gases escaping from the body may vibrate your vocal chords causing chilling moans to escape from your corpse.  Certainly horrifying to anyone who happens to be within earshot!
  • If you happen to be pregnant when you die, your body may give birth in the grave.  This is known as ‘coffin birth‘ or postmortem extrusion and happens in unusual circumstances when the abdominal gases that build up during the processes of decay push out the fetus through the vaginal opening of the dead woman.
  • Your body can continue to sporadically twitch after death.  These are spinal reflexes that can occur without any brain activity.  In rare cases, corpses have been seen extending their arms and curling the fingers in hands.  Again, nerves in the spine continue to be active for hours after death. Imagine seeing a corpse on a gurney lift its arm as those waving.  It would be enough for me to pee my pants.
  • Speaking of pee, immediately after death, every muscle in the body relaxes.  That includes the sphincters responsible for keeping your bladder and bowls in lockdown.  So, if there’s material there at the moment of death your body will soil itself after death.

8.  Blistering

About a week after death, when your skin tone gets an attractive marbling, your skin begins to blister.  If anyone happens to touch you at this point, your skin falls off.

9.  Weeks after Death

About a month after death depending on conditions such as surrounding temperature and where your body lies, a number of gross things happen.  Your hair and nails fall out.  Your organs completely liquefy and your swelling body bursts open releasing the gases and liquified mush that was your body.  Not a pleasant picture at all is it?

10.  Skeletonization

Again depending on environmental conditions your body is fairly quickly stripped of all flesh shortly after your dramatic bursting open.  It can take from days in wet, humid conditions to a year in dryer less humid conditions. Flies and other insects have had their way with you if you’ve been left out in the open.  As well, various parts of you may have been scavenged by any number of creatures. Buried bodies take much longer to skeletonize because your body is exposed to far fewer scavengers and fewer environmental ravages.

 

Death is inevitable but definitely not glamourous.  Whether we like it or not, we all eventually become part of the cyclical recycling of matter in our biosphere.

 

 

 

What happens to our body after death is not pretty but it is science! Click To Tweet

 

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