What Happens To Your Body When You Die?

Gabby MartinDecomposition

What happens to our bodies when we die?


  • Most Common Causes of Death

  • Stages of Body Decomposition

  • How Long Does it Take to Decompose?

  • What Happens After Discovery?

  • What Happens to Debt?

Dead Pulse

Everyone thinks about death differently, just like how grief affects everyone differently. Mortality is an uncomfortable concept for everyone, but it's something we all have to encounter eventually.

Despite our fear of suffering, there's something about dying that fascinates us. Because few manage to reverse the process, we tend to be fascinated by the experience we don't know for sure. Crime scene shows and movies tend to sanitize what we, as crime scene cleaners, see all the time.

It's perfectly natural to be curious. What happens immediately to you and your body is question we've all had at one time. As crime scene cleaners, we're here to shed some light on a dark subject, with some interesting non-visual facts about the stages of decomposition post-mortem, and what happens to what you leave behind (possessions and debt).

How Do People Die?

Our jobs range in cleaning up all cases, but how people die suddenly is a curiosity we've all had once or twice. Most cases of sudden deaths we encounter are caused by violence or illness, but the leading causes according to the CDC are "unintentional injuries". This covers car accidents, bad falls, and  overdoses, all which take 58,500 lives every year. Some of these causes aren't simple to prevent, but solutions for preventing falls does appear to be more promising.

After unintentional injuries comes terminal illnesses like cancer, which sadly kills 22,000 of us every year. Homicides claim 17,900 people a year. Homicide is followed by heart disease, which claims 16,400 people. Next is suicide, which kills 15,900 of us a year, and is sometimes brought on from trauma like that of a public crisis. After that, the numbers begin to fall sharply. In sixth place is liver disease, followed by stroke, congenital disabilities, the flu, pneumonia, and diabetes. 

How Does the Way You Die Affect Human Decomposition?

It doesn't. Although there are various ways to die and a myriad of circumstances, the stages are the same. Decay is broken down into 5 stages of decomposition and all vertebrates, including animals, experience these stages after they die. That is, of course, assuming that they haven't been embalmed.

The only thing that affects decomposition is the environment. Climate, weather, and the location of the corpse all influence the rate of decay and level of odor, as well as the aftermath cleanup. Warmer climates tend to foster more bacteria growth, meaning the clean up requires more widespread attention to detail. Since the odor has more trajectory in humid, hotter weather, there tends to be more pests and molecular biomatter.

The 5 Stages of Decomposition

After dying, everything from fluids, tissue, to muscle structure changes and the body is cold to the touch almost immediately. Note that the stages of human decay listed below can blend into each other, they give you a general idea of what we see all the time. In general, it takes about 2 months for all of the body's soft tissue to completely decompose. The bones, however, can remain for years long after the final stages (if you're thinking about murdering someone, don't!).

Stage #1: The Fresh Stage (0-72 Hours Later)

Immediately upon death, the muscles relax, causing the kidneys and bowels to release biohazardous urine and excrement. Within about two hours the eyeball sockets become depressurized. When this happens, the eyes shrink and eventually perish with the soft tissue in later stages. The rate of rigor mortis varies, but on average begins within 24 hours.

Your heart and circulatory system stop, causing your temperature to drop and with no immune system, the microbes on the corpse begin to grow unchecked. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the corpse attracts insects who will find it a good breeding ground in which to lay eggs.

Stage #2: The Bloat Stage (3-10 Days Later)

Without oxygen circulating, anaerobic bacteria growth goes wild. Body fat begins to be eaten by these microbes, producing hydrogen sulfide and methane. As the gases increase, skin begins to stretch from the pressure, causing the appearance of bloating.

In addition, the skin discolors, remaining body fluids leak, and the insect eggs start hatching and feeding on the corpse.

Stage #3: The Active Decay Stage (10-25 Days Later)

Eventually, the skin stretches so far that it ruptures, spewing massive amounts of fluid all over the area. The breakdown of the skin allows more microbes and insects access to the rest of the corpse. Whatever skin is left blackens as the bacteria colonizes and deoxidizes it.

Strong, potentially traumatic decomposition odors become overbearing, and the body eventually loses all of its fluids.

Stage #4: The Advanced Decay Stage (25-60 Days Later)

Hair and nails start to yellow and deteriorate. If outside, the corpse becomes a breeding ground for fungi and plant life. Eventually, decomposition slows as there's less to break down. Most soft tissue perishes, causing the bones to become exposed.

Stage #5: Skeletonization (2 Months and Later)

Hair and teeth begin to perish and only the dry bones, cartilage, and some of the skin remains. This is exactly the reason why this stage gets the name "skeletonization", because the bones are the longest survivor of this stage. If outside, plant life begins grow from the nutrients in the soil.

What Happens to the Dead Body?

What happens after discovery depends on three factors: where the person died, why they died, and if there are plans for the remains by the family. For example, if a person dies under a doctor's care, the doctor will sign the death certificate, and the body will be taken directly to the morgue or funeral home.

But if they died as are result of a violent crime, unexpectedly, or not under a doctor's care, a medical examiner or coroner must investigate the cause of death. Then, based on the circumstances, they will decide if an autopsy is needed. An autopsy is done at a morgue or funeral home and examined internally and externally by a pathologist.

Our team of crime scene cleaners never handle or transport the body.

After the death certificate is released, most families have a funeral director transport the  corpse, but some states allow families to transport it themselves. Corpses are generally transported to funeral homes before burying, where the family works with the funeral director to plan the celebration of life or final goodbye ceremony will be. If the casket will be displayed for viewing, then it is embalmed and made to look natural. Embalming is necessary to slow the stages of decay. Cremation and immediate burials are also an option, depending on the wishes of the family.

What Happens to the Deceased's Student and Credit Card Debt?

A common misconception is that all debt is forgiven when someone passes. In fact, most debt is distributed amongst close family and/or heirs of the estate. Ultimately, debt is taken out of the estate's assets, but to some degree it does depend on how much and what kind. Student loans, certain taxes, and any debt that exceeds estate assets gets forgiven, but estate taxes must always be paid.

Besides funeral costs we often hear about families being surprised by the amount of debt left for them settle. It may be helpful to know that you can throw affordable funerals.

What About Their Property and Possessions?

Some people don't care what happens to their property and possessions after they pass, while others die so suddenly that the thought comes as an unfortunate surprise. It's never something you want to think about, but a will is important to have.

A living will is like a contract with the family and state that should clarify how the possessions, property, and even burial method will be handled upon your death. Writing a will makes sure all important possessions are handled according to plan. Without one, there's a large chance of it all being left to the state and the family will need to battle over the estate in court.

Transferring assets and reading a will is generally done within a few months after someone dies, but without a will the process takes even longer.

Cleaning the Remains of an Unexpected Loss

Death is tough. There's just no way else to say it. But, we are here to help, if you are experiencing lingering decomposition odors, have lost a loved one (sorry for your loss), or expecting a home death. Being prepared won't help the pain, but it can eliminate some stress.

As you've read, decomposition always leaves a biological mess. With the gases, fluid, and pests comes the concern of how to properly remediate the situation. There's no need to clean it yourself. We work with these situations on a daily basis. For further reading, please see: car accident cleanup, homicide cleanups, overdose cleanups, and professional home disinfections.

We're here and we're ready to help.

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