We don’t often talk about what happens to our bodies after burial. Sure, we’re placed safe and sound in a coffin and lowered gently into the ground – but what actually happens to us once we’re down there?
Today we’re diving deep into the stages of human decomposition. Keep scrolling to learn everything you need to know about what happens inside a coffin.
Decomposition is the process in which the organs and complex molecules of the human body deteriorate into simple organic matter over time.
Not a science person and feel like you just read a bunch of gibberish? Put simply, human decomposition is an entirely natural process whereby your body’s tissues slowly break down after death.
The rate at which a human body decomposes varies depending on moisture, pH and oxygen levels, cause of death, temperature, and body position. So if you’ve been wondering about how long it takes for a human body to completely decompose, we unfortunately don’t have the answer for you. It’s kinda like asking how long a piece of string is.
The Stages of Decomposition
There are four main stages of human decomposition. Here’s a little bit about each stage.
Stage 1: Autolysis
Occurs: 24-72 hours after death
Autolysis’ means ‘self-digestion’, and this is the first stage of human decomposition. It occurs immediately after death and is triggered when a person’s blood stops circulating and they stop respirating (breathing). When this happens, there’s no way for the body to get oxygen or remove waste, and an excess of carbon dioxide in the body creates an acidic environment that prompts membranes in human cells to rupture.
Once ruptured, these membranes release enzymes that begin to eat the body’s cells from the inside out. After this, rigor mortis kicks in, and your muscles begin to stiffen. Eventually, small blisters will begin to appear on internal organs and on the surface of the skin. These are filled with nutrient-rich fluid. This causes the skin to loosen, while making its surface appear a little shiny.
Stage 2: Bloating
Occurs: 3-5 days after death
You know those enzymes we mentioned in stage 1? The ones that begin to eat the body’s cells from the inside out? Well, they come into play in this section, too. When these enzymes leak, they produce gases, causing the body to bloat to sometimes double its size.
At this stage, the skin can become discoloured and bacteria and microorganisms can produce odours (this process is called putrefaction). These odours can often linger in a room or a home after a person has died – but don’t worry, they don’t linger for too long (especially if the person is removed from the room or home shortly after their death).
Stage 3: Active Decay
Occurs: 8+ days after death.
After a few weeks, nails and teeth will fall out. After 1 month, the liquefaction process commences.
During this stage the body loses the most mass. The muscles, organs and skin are liquefied, with the cadaver’s bones, cartilage and hair remaining at the end of this process.
Stage 4: Skeletonisation
Occurs: There’s no set point in the decomposition process where skeletonisation occurs. Usually, though, this happens after the 50-year mark (so yes, the human decomposition process is a pretty lengthy one).
This stage is self-explanatory; it’s the physical state of a dead body – after undergoing the previous three stages of decomposition – where the skeleton is exposed.
While the thought of a body decomposing in a coffin can feel a little scary and hard to grapple with, we hope that this guide has helped you better understand this completely natural – and entirely normal – process.