Most people today have little experience with death, and even less experience with decomposition. Embalming technology has allowed us to preserve bodies for much longer and keep them presentable through the burial process. Today we’ll talk about what happens to the human body after death, and why professional decomposition cleanup is so important.
Immediately After Death
When a human being dies, many changes happen quickly. Within minutes, the skin begins to grow pale. Once the heart stops beating, blood stops circulating and begins to settle. As the blood settles, extremities and elevated body parts will appear paler than they did in life.
At the same time, body temperature begins to shift. Since the body is no longer regulating its own temperature, it slowly changes to match the temperature of its environment. Usually, the body cools until it reaches ambient temperature. However, in warm climates such as deserts, the body will increase in temperature. This process is known as “algor mortis.” Algor mortis is such a steady, reliable process that it is often used by coroners to determine the time of death in cases of homicide or unattended deaths.
Next, the body undergoes the process most familiar to the public: rigor mortis. As the body breaks down, chemicals are released that cause the muscles to stiffen and lock the body in place. The muscles remain in position until additional decomposition causes them to release again. Rigor mortis generally sets in around 13 hours after death, and subsides 48 to 60 hours later. However, particularly warm or cold environments can speed or slow the process, respectively.
As time passes, the body begins to break down, in a process known as putrefaction. A host of bacteria and other organisms dissolve and digest body tissues. Some of these bacteria come from within the body. Some organs, such as the pancreas, contain various bacteria throughout a person’s life, which are necessary for good health. After death, these same bacteria jumpstart the decomposition process. They are joined by insects and other organisms to break down and consume the corpse.
As the body decomposes, tissues begin to liquify. At the same time, various gases are produced. These are the source of the infamous odor associated with death. Eventually, all flesh and other remains decompose, leaving only the skeleton behind.
The decomposition process is very rapid. A body begins to decompose within minutes. After a few days, major decomposition has set in. Within a year, very little beyond the skeleton remains. This timeline is greatly affected by the surrounding environment. Warm, moist environments will speed the process. Conversely, very cold or very hot, dry climates will slow or even halt decomposition.
The Myth of Growing Hair and Fingernails
Most people are familiar with the folklore of growth after death. The legend goes that a person’s hair and fingernails continue to grow after their death for some period of time, varying based on who is telling the story. In actuality, nothing of the sort happens. As a body decomposes, it often dries out. This loss of moisture causes the skin to tighten and pull back from existing hair and fingernails. To the untrained eye, this change in appearance can look like new growth, when the opposite is true.
The Importance of Hiring a Professional for Decomp Cleanup
Decomposition involves a wide variety of bacteria, which can cause a number of dangerous diseases. Professional decomposition cleanup companies are specially trained and equipped to clean and sanitize the site of a death. They can also eliminate the pervasive, foul odor that comes with decomposition.