Most people don’t like to think about what happens to a body after death. Decomposition, odors, and body fluids are gross. But, if you are like me, these are things you find fascinating.
What part of the body decomposes first? How long does the decomposition process take? Can a body explode if it’s left after death?
Read on and learn the steps of decomposition and what exactly happens to a body upon death.
What Happens to a Body After Death?
- Death pronouncement
- Body transportation
- In most cases, the funeral home
- Less common, the Medical Examiner or similar office
- Body processing
- Memorial events
- Viewing, visitation, or wake
- Funeral or memorial service
- Final disposition
- Body Decomposition; Or, “At Rest”
1. Death Pronouncement
A death pronouncement is an official medical fact that someone is dead. Typically a doctor or nurse can make a death pronouncement. Everyone else (firefighters, police officers, or EMTs) will declare death.
I have had families say, “Mom didn’t die at 2:50. She died at 2:25!”
The family and the doctor may have a discrepancy because the doctor was not present at the actual time of death.
When the doctor arrives, he will check for signs of respiration and a pulse. He will then inspect the deceased pupils’ responses.
The death pronouncement is given at the time the doctor examines the body and determines death has occurred. The legal time of death may be a long time after the death has actually occurred.
For example, many accident victims are dead at the accident scene but are pronounced dead officially upon arrival at a hospital because no physician was at the scene.
Related: What Happens When Someone Dies?
2. Body Transportation
After a death has occurred, someone notifies the funeral home. The funeral home will come to the place of death and pick up the body.
When a death occurs in/at a:
- Hospital: The hospital will notify the funeral home when a death has occurred. The body will either be in the room they died in or the hospital morgue.
- Home: In a home death, the police or hospice nurse will notify the funeral home. If it is a natural death, the funeral home’s removal team will pick up the deceased and transport it to the funeral home. If it is a suspicious death, the Medical Examiner’s removal team will take the body to the county morgue.
- Hospice: In a hospice facility death, the hospice nurse will notify the funeral home. The removal team will pick the deceased up in the room where he passed.
- If the body is found: When a body is found, someone will call the police. Law enforcement will go to the scene. The Medical Examiner’s team will be notified and transport the body to the county morgue.
3. Processing or Preserving the Body
There are various ways to process or preserve the body. Embalming hasn’t always been readily available in the US.
Body Preservation: Refrigeration
People will typically think of “refrigeration” when keeping a body cold. But there are other alternatives.
- Ice – If you keep a deceased loved one at home, you will need to keep the body cool. Place ice packs on the torso. You should cover the stomach, intestines, heart, and lungs. Please don’t place the ice packs directly on the skin; wrapping them in towels will be fine.
- Dry Ice – Dry ice is difficult to come by. It also requires special handling to avoid burning the skin of either the user or the deceased.
- Air Conditioning – Keeping the body for 24 hours or less, keep the room at 65 degrees or less.
- Open the Windows – For families willing to go old-fashioned, open the windows in cool weather can be the way to go. As with air conditioning, this is a temporary measure to be used for 24 hours or less.
Body Preservation: Embalming
- Embalming – Traditional embalming is the most popular way to preserve a body. Embalming became more common in the United States during the American Civil War. Service members often died far from home and needed to be preserved for the long journey back.
- Eco-Embalming – This is a newer alternative to formaldehyde. Because it is so unique, not all funeral homes offer it. In addition, eco-embalming is made of non-toxic plant-based oils. Therefore, it will not cause any damage to the ground once the body breaks down.
Body Processing: Burial
Burial is placing the body in a grave or tomb. Burial is common in the US, coming in at 35% or second place to cremation.
As the costs of burial continue to rise; the price can get out of hand very quickly. For example, the average cost of a funeral today is $7,400. So you can easily add another $4,000 to $5,000 for cemetery costs.
Learn more in our extensive burial resources.
Body Processing: Cremation
Cremation reduces the body to bone fragments by burning it to ashes.
We’ll go into greater detail of burial, cremation, and other options in the “Final Disposition” section below.
4. Memorial Events
Viewing, Visitation, or Wake
At a viewing or wake, the body is usually present. However, a visitation may or may not have the body present.
A viewing is akin to a wake, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The most significant difference is the wake tends to be more religious and will have a prayer service. However, a body will be present.
A visitation usually doesn’t have a body present. Instead, it is the time friends and family gather together to honor the decedent.
Funeral or Memorial Service
A memorial service can be held after a burial. Some families will have a private funeral followed by a memorial service; the body will already be buried.
A memorial service can be held after a cremation. The urn, which is filled with the cremated remains, will be present.
The last memorial event involving the body is the final disposition. This is where the body is – finally – at rest.
When the body is buried or interred in a cemetery grave, tomb, or mausoleum, the service is called a committal. If the body is cremated and the remains (aka “ashes”) are scattered or kept at home, some families have a cremation ceremony or scattering service.
Here are the most common final disposition options:
- Ground burial at a cemetery
- Above-ground burial in a mausoleum
- Entombment in a lawn crypt
- Natural burial
- Cremation with burial in a cemetery
- Above-ground burial in a columbarium
- Scattering of ashes
- Urn kept at home
- Direct cremation
- Alternative disposition methods
- Alkaline hydrolysis
- Burial or scattering at sea
- Body preservation
Read more about each of these options here.
Body Decomposition – Or “At Rest”?
This last stage is the part that can be the most unpleasant to talk or think about. The body is not “at rest,” which means returning to the earth.
No one enjoys the thought of their loved one’s body decaying. This is why we use euphemisms like “at rest.”
Still, it’s helpful to know what actually happens.
The Five Stages of Decomposition
Here’s what physically happens to the human body after death. Unfortunately, none of it is restful or peaceful.
If you don’t want to know the gritty truth, read no further.
Stage One: Autolysis
Immediately through 4 days after death
The definition of autolysis is the destruction of cells or tissues by their own enzymes. For example, autolysis is how digestive enzymes within the body cells break down carbohydrates and proteins.
Autolysis – the body’s cells breaking down – begins immediately after death. For example, your brain is one of the first parts of the body to break down. Then, just a few minutes after death, its cells collapse and release water.
Stage Two: Bloating
4-10 days after death
Leaked enzymes from autolysis begin producing various gases, causing bloating.
The sulfur-containing compounds that the bacteria release also cause skin discoloration. Due to the gases, the human body can bloat to double in size.
In addition, the microorganisms produce unpleasant odors called putrefaction. This stench often alerts others that a person (or animal) has died.
These smells stay around long after a body has been removed. At this point, the body may rupture due to the excess gas building up. This stage occurs between four and ten days after death.
Stage Three: Active Decay
10-25 days after death
Fluids released through the body’s openings show the beginning of active decay. During the active decay phase of decomposition, insects and maggots feed on the body, helping break it down even further. The active decay stage occurs anywhere from 10 to 25 days after death.
Stage Four: Advanced Decay
25-50 days after death
Insects complete the breaking down of soft tissues, skin, and hair. The body continues to break down, exposing bones to the environment.
This stage of decomposition could allow the bones to scatter. The advanced decay stage occurs 25 to 50 days after death.
Stage Five: Dry Remains
50+ days after death
The last stage of decomposition is skeletonization or dry remains. Bones, teeth, hair, and dried skin might be present.
However, the bones are probably not in any form of a human skeleton because the muscles and connective tissue have broken down. This stage happens after 50 days of decomposition.
Skipping the Stages: Preservation & Cremation
A direct cremation will bypass most of the steps of decomposition. The cremation might be able to take place as quickly as 48 hours after death. The whole time the body is waiting for cremation, it is in refrigeration.
Embalming and refrigeration can slow down the steps of decomposition. Some people think the embalming process will completely stop the body’s decay, but this isn’t true.
The rate of decomposition will differ, depending on the strength of the chemicals and embalming methods used. According to my research, it will take 50 years for an embalmed body to decompose in a casket; mummified skin and tissue will be left behind.
Death is an essential part of life, as necessary as birth. It is something none of us will escape. “For you are dust, and to dust, you will return.”
Karen Roldan has been in the funeral industry since 2006, and a licensed funeral director and embalmer since 2008. She is currently licensed in the states of Indiana and Pennsylvania.
She attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, IL, and graduated with an associate degree in Mortuary Science.
Karen enjoys wring about the funeral industry because her passion is helping families in their deepest time of need. She feels being a funeral director is a calling and she is proud to fulfill this role.
Karen is a wife and the mother of four sons. She, her husband and their youngest son call Pennsylvania home.