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Death is an entirely new chapter for our bodies. The final one, actually. And when it happens, either by natural causes, suicide, by accident, or at the hand of a murderer, the end result is always the same—our human forms immediately begin to decompose.

No matter how it happens, when death occurs, the body starts its downward spiral toward skeletonization, first by cooling until it reaches ambient temperature. Next is dehydration, followed by hypostasis/livor mortis/lividity (the gravity-pulled settling of blood at the lowest point within the skin capillaries and other tiny blood vessels—venules, and in the internal organs), rigor mortis, and then autolysis and putrefaction, and possibly mummification, adipocere formation, etc.

For the purpose of this article, and because they appear in many crime crime novels, we’ll explore the two processes of decomposition—autolysis and putrefaction.

Autolysis

Autolysis should be easy to remember for mystery, thriller, suspense, and especially true crime writers. How so? The process can be, in a macabre sort of way, compared to the horrors that took place inside Apartment 213, the residence occupied by a man named Jeffery Dahmer.

With Dahmer in mind, the role of autolysis in decomposition becomes clear. The serial killer from Milwaukee murdered and butchered several victims, keeping some body parts as souvenirs while dissolving others portions in acid. He also pulverized some bone into dust. Included in his ghoulish activities was cannibalism. Yes, he consumed portions of the men he killed and dismembered. The loosely used connection between Dahmer and autolysis is his taste for human flesh, the cannibalism. Yes, our bodies eat their own, sort of.

When death occurs, the body begins its downward spiral toward skeletonization, first by cooling until it reaches ambient temperature. Next is dehydration, followed by hypostasis/livor mortis/lividity (the gravity-pulled settling of blood at the lowest point within the skin capillaries and venules, and in the internal organs), rigor mortis, and then autolysis and putrefaction, or mummification and so on.

Enzymes inside our body’s cells begin digesting their own cells (self-digestion), a sort of reverse Filial cannibalism. This is the process known as autolysis.

Autolysis is affected by the environment. Heat, humidity, surrounding soil and water and even air current (winds) are all factors in the process of decomposition. Autolytic processes are deterred by the cold. In fact, body organs each suffer different rates of autolysis when exposed to low temperatures. Such is the case after death when a body is stored in a refrigerated morgue cold room.

For example, lungs begin to show signs of disintegration at 36 hours after death while stored in the morgue. At 60 hours, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) are demarcated by rows of red blood cells (erythrocytes).

FYI – red blood cells do not contain DNA

 

At 48 hours, in the cold room, myocardial (heart) fibers begin to show a bit of space/separation. Cells within the heart are no longer as well-defined and their exteriors look a little serrate.

Putrefaction

Putrefaction is decomposition caused by the microorganisms, such as bacteria, that live inside our bodies.

After the first 36 hours or so, the neck, abdomen, shoulders and the head area begin to turn a greenish color. Next to show up is bloating that’s caused the gas produced by bacteria munching away at the body of the victim. Bloating is most visible around the face.

The eyes and tongue begin to protrude as the gases inside push them forward. The skin blisters and peels away (slippage), and hair falls out.

Skin on the hands and feet sometimes slip off, creating grotesque human gloves and socks.

Red blood cells break down causing an effect known as marbling. These “marbled” patterns are quite visible on the face, abdomen, chest and arms and legs.

The body turns greenish-black and fluids begin to seep outward through the mouth, nose, and other natural openings. Cracks in the skin have formed by now and also leak the foul soup.

Grave Wax

Adipocere (aka grave wax), a white-ish, gray waxy substance—adipocere —forms on the face and extremities. After a while, its color changes to a yellow or tannish color. Typically, adipocere takes about three months to develop.

As with autolysis, putrefaction is accelerated by heat and slowed by cool.

 

 

 

During their crime-solving duties homicide investigators hear a lot of details, sounds of gunfire and people running, bits of spoken evidence, and much more. But one thing they’d best pay particular attention to is what the body has to say, and believe me, it’s usually a lot.

Dead bodies always have a lot to reveal to investigators!

Putrefaction is the destruction of the soft tissue caused by two things, bacteria and enzymes. As the bacteria and enzymes do their jobs the body immediately begins to discolor and transform into liquids and gases. The odd thing about the bacteria that destroys tissue at death is that much of it has been living in the respiratory and intestinal tracts all along.  Of course, if the deceased had contracted a bacterial infection prior to death, that bacteria, such as septicemia (blood poisoning), would aid in increasing the body’s decomposition.

Temperature plays an important part in decomposition. 70 degrees to 100 degrees F is the optimal range for bacteria and enzymes to do what they do best, while lower temperatures slow the process. Therefore, and obviously, a body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

 

A blood-filled circulatory system acts as a super-highway for those organisms that destroy the body after death. Without blood the process of putrefaction is slowed.

Therefore, a murder victim whose body bled out will decompose at a slower rate than someone who died of natural causes.

Bodies adorned in thick, heavy clothing (the material retains heat) decompose more rapidly than the norm. Electric blankets also speed up decomposition.

A body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

A body that’s buried in warm soil may decompose faster than one that’s buried during the dead of winter. The type of soil that surrounds the body also has an effect on the rate of decomposition. For example, the soil in North Carolina is normally a reddish type of clay. The density of that clay can greatly retard the decomposition process because it reduces the circulation of air that’s found in a less dense, more sandy-type of earth.

Adult bodies buried in a well drained soil will become skeletonized in approximately 10 years. A child’s body in about five years.

People who were overweight at the time of their deaths decompose faster than skinny people. People who suffered from excessive fluid build-up decompose faster than those who were dehydrated. And people with massive infections and congestive heart failure will also decompose at a more rapid rate than those without those conditions.

The rule of thumb for the decomposition of a body is that, at the same temperature, 8 weeks in well-drained soil equals two weeks in the water, or one week exposed to the air.

Now, hold on to your breakfast …

The first sign of decomposition under average conditions is a greenish discoloration of the skin at the abdomen. This is apparent at 36-72 hours.

Next – Small vessels in the skin become visible (marbling).

Followed by, glistening skin, skin slippage, purplish skin, blisters, distended abdomen (after one week – caused by gases), blood-stained fluid oozing from body openings (nose, mouth, etc.), swelling of tissue and the presence of foul gaseous odor, greenish-purple face, swollen eyelids and pouting lips, swollen face, protruding tongue, hair pulls out easily, fingernails come off easily, skin from hands pulls off (gloving), body swells and appears greatly obese.

Internally, the body is decomposing and breaking down. The heart has become flabby and soft. The liver has honeycombed, and the kidneys are like wet sponges. The brain is nearly liquid, and the lungs may be a bit brittle.

Wrong kind of brittle, but who wants to end the post with crunchy lungs? So have some homemade peanut brittle and enjoy your day.