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Putrefaction is the fifth stage of death, following pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, and livor mortis. This process references the breaking down of a body of a human or animal post-mortem (meaning after death). In broad terms, it can be viewed as the decomposition of proteins, and the eventual breakdown of the cohesiveness between tissues, and the liquefaction of most organs. This is caused by the decomposition of organic matter by bacterial or fungal digestion, which causes the release of gases that infiltrate the body's tissues, and leads to the deterioration of the tissues and organs. The approximate time it takes putrefaction to occur is dependent on various factors. Internal factors that affect the rate of putrefaction include the age at which death has occurred, the overall structure and condition of the body, the cause of death, and external injuries arising before or after death. External factors include environmental temperature, moisture and air exposure, clothing, burial factors, and light exposure.

Pallor mortis, the first stage of death, is an after-death paleness that occurs in those with light/white skin.

Algor mortis, the second stage of death, is the change in body temperature post mortem, until the ambient temperature is matched. This is generally a steady decline, although if the ambient temperature is above the body temperature, the change in temperature will be positive, as the (relatively) cooler body acclimates to the warmer environment. External factors can have a significant influence.

Rigor mortis, or postmortem rigidity, is the third stage of death. It is one of the recognizable signs of death, characterized by stiffening of the limbs of the corpse caused by chemical changes in the muscles postmortem. In humans, rigor mortis can occur as soon as four hours after death.


The first signs of putrefaction are signified by a greenish discoloration on the outside of the skin on the abdominal wall corresponding to where the large intestine begins, as well as under the surface of the liver.

Certain substances, such as carbolic acid, arsenic, strychnine, and zinc chloride, can be used to delay the process of putrefaction in various ways based on their chemical make up.

Phenol chemical compound

Phenol is an aromatic organic compound with the molecular formula C6H5OH. It is a white crystalline solid that is volatile. The molecule consists of a phenyl group (−C6H5) bonded to a hydroxy group (−OH). It is mildly acidic and requires careful handling due to its propensity for causing chemical burns.

Arsenic Chemical element with atomic number 33

Arsenic is a chemical element with the symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in combination with sulfur and metals, but also as a pure elemental crystal. Arsenic is a metalloid. It has various allotropes, but only the gray form, which has a metallic appearance, is important to industry.

Strychnine chemical compound

Strychnine is a highly toxic, colorless, bitter, crystalline alkaloid used as a pesticide, particularly for killing small vertebrates such as birds and rodents. Strychnine, when inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the eyes or mouth, causes poisoning which results in muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia. While it has no known medicinal effects, in the past the convulsant effect was believed to be beneficial in small doses. The most common source is from the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree.

Body farms are facilities which study the process of human decomposition as well as how environmental factors affect the rate of putrefaction.

A body farm is a research facility where decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings. They were invented by anthropologist Dr. William Bass in 1987 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee where Dr. Bass was interested in studying the decomposition of a human corpse from the time of death to the time of decay. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the decomposition process, permitting the development of techniques for extracting information such as the timing and circumstances of death from human remains. Body farm research is of particular interest in forensic anthropology and related disciplines, and has applications in the fields of law enforcement and forensic science. By placing the bodies outside to face the elements, researchers are able to get a better understanding of the decomposition process.


In thermodynamic terms, all organic tissues are composed of chemical energy, which, when not maintained by the constant biochemical maintenance of the living organism, begin to chemically break down due to the reaction with water into amino acids, known as hydrolysis. The breakdown of the proteins of a decomposing body is a spontaneous process. Protein hydrolysis is accelerated as the anaerobic bacteria of the digestive tract consume, digest, and excrete the cellular proteins of the body.


Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that deals with heat and temperature, and their relation to energy, work, radiation, and properties of matter. The behavior of these quantities is governed by the four laws of thermodynamics which convey a quantitative description using measurable macroscopic physical quantities, but may be explained in terms of microscopic constituents by statistical mechanics. Thermodynamics applies to a wide variety of topics in science and engineering, especially physical chemistry, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering, but also in fields as complex as meteorology.

A spontaneous process is the time-evolution of a system in which it releases free energy and it moves to a lower, more thermodynamically stable energy state. The sign convention for free energy follows the general convention for thermodynamic measurements, in which a release of free energy from the system corresponds to a negative change in the free energy of the system and a positive change in the free energy of the surroundings.

An anaerobic organism or anaerobe is any organism that does not require oxygen for growth. It may react negatively or even die if free oxygen is present. In contrast, an aerobic organism (aerobe) is an organism that requires an oxygenated environment. Anaerobes may be unicellular or multicellular.

Putrefaction in human hands after several days of one of the Oba Chandler victims underwater in Florida, United States Rogers body.jpg
Putrefaction in human hands after several days of one of the Oba Chandler victims underwater in Florida, United States

The bacterial digestion of the cellular proteins weakens the tissues of the body. As the proteins are continuously broken down to smaller components, the bacteria excrete gases and organic compounds, such as the functional-group amines putrescine (from ornithine) and cadaverine (from lysine), which carry the noxious odor of rotten flesh. Initially, the gases of putrefaction are constrained within the body cavities, but eventually diffuse through the adjacent tissues, and then into the circulatory system. Once in the blood vessels, the putrid gases infiltrate and diffuse to other parts of the body and the limbs.

Organic compound Chemical compound that contains carbon (except for several compounds traditionally classified as inorganic compounds)

In chemistry, an organic compound is generally any chemical compound that contains carbon. Due to carbon's ability to catenate, millions of organic compounds are known. The study of the properties, reactions, and syntheses of organic compounds comprises the discipline known as organic chemistry. For historical reasons, a few classes of carbon-containing compounds, along with a handful of other exceptions, are not classified as organic compounds and are considered inorganic. Other than those just named, little consensus exists among chemists on precisely which carbon-containing compounds are excluded, making any rigorous definition of an organic compound elusive.

Functional group moiety that imparts a molecules characteristic chemical reactions; moiety that participates in similar chemical reactions in most molecules that contain it

In organic chemistry, functional groups are specific substituents or moieties within molecules that are responsible for the characteristic chemical reactions of those molecules. The same functional group will undergo the same or similar chemical reaction(s) regardless of the size of the molecule it is a part of. This allows for systematic prediction of chemical reactions and behavior of chemical compounds and design of chemical syntheses. Furthermore, the reactivity of a functional group can be modified by other functional groups nearby. In organic synthesis, functional group interconversion is one of the basic types of transformations.

In organic chemistry, amines (, UK also ) are compounds and functional groups that contain a basic nitrogen atom with a lone pair. Amines are formally derivatives of ammonia, wherein one or more hydrogen atoms have been replaced by a substituent such as an alkyl or aryl group (these may respectively be called alkylamines and arylamines; amines in which both types of substituent are attached to one nitrogen atom may be called alkylarylamines). Important amines include amino acids, biogenic amines, trimethylamine, and aniline; see Category:Amines for a list of amines. Inorganic derivatives of ammonia are also called amines, such as chloramine (NClH2); see Category:Inorganic amines.

The visual result of gaseous tissue-infiltration is notable bloating of the torso and limbs. The increased, internal pressure of the continually rising volume of gas further stresses, weakens, and separates the tissues constraining the gas. In the course of putrefaction, the skin tissues of the body eventually rupture and release the bacterial gas. As the anaerobic bacteria continue consuming, digesting, and excreting the tissue proteins, the body's decomposition progresses to the stage of skeletonization. This continued consumption also results in the production of ethanol by the bacteria, which can make it difficult to determine the blood alcohol content (BAC) in autopsies, particularly in bodies recovered from water. [1]

Ethanol is a chemical compound, a simple alcohol with the chemical formula C
. Its formula can be also written as CH
OH or C
OH, and is often abbreviated as EtOH. Ethanol is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid with a slight characteristic odor. It is a psychoactive substance and is the principal type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks.

Blood alcohol content Metric of alcohol intoxication

Blood alcohol content (BAC), also called blood alcohol concentration, blood ethanol concentration, or blood alcohol level, is most commonly used as a metric of alcohol intoxication for legal or medical purposes.

Generally, the term decomposition encompasses the biochemical processes that occur from the physical death of the person (or animal) until the skeletonization of the body. Putrefaction is one of seven stages of decomposition; as such, the term putrescible identifies all organic matter (animal and human) that is biochemically subject to putrefaction. In the matter of death by poisoning, the putrefaction of the body is chemically delayed by poisons such as antimony, arsenic, carbolic acid (phenol), nux vomica (plant), strychnine (pesticide), and zinc chloride.

Approximate timeline

Timeline for the decomposition of organs in the body: [2]

  1. Larynx and trachea
  2. Infant brain
  3. Stomach
  4. Intestines
  5. Spleen
  6. Omentum and mesentery
  7. Liver
  8. Adult brain
  9. Heart
  10. Lungs
  11. Kidneys
  12. Bladder
  13. Esophagus
  14. Pancreas
  15. Diaphragm
  16. Blood vessels
  17. Uterus

The rate of putrefaction is greatest in air, followed by water, soil, and earth. The exact rate of putrefaction is dependent upon many factors such as weather, exposure and location. Thus, refrigeration at a morgue or funeral home can retard the process, allowing for burial in three days or so following death without embalming. The rate increases dramatically in tropical climates. The first external sign of putrefaction in a body lying in air is usually a greenish discoloration of the skin over the region of the caecum, which appears in 12–24 hours. The first internal sign is usually a greenish discoloration on the undersurface of liver.

Factors affecting putrefaction

Various factors affect the rate of putrefaction. [3] [4] [5]

Exogenous (external)

Environmental temperature: Decomposition is accelerated by high atmospheric or environmental temperature, with putrefaction speed optimized between 21 °C (70 °F) and 38 °C (100 °F), further sped along by high levels of humidity. This optimal temperature assists in the chemical breakdown of the tissue and promotes microorganism growth. Decomposition nearly stops below 0 °C (32 °F) or above 48 °C (118 °F).

Moisture and air exposure: Putrefaction is ordinarily slowed by the body being submerged in water, due to diminished exposure to air. Air exposure and moisture can both contribute to the introduction and growth of microorganisms, speeding degradation. In a hot and dry environment the body can undergo a process called mummification where the body is completely dehydrated and bacterial decay is inhibited.

Clothing: Loose-fitting clothing can speed up the rate of putrefaction, as it helps to retain body heat. Tight-fitting clothing can delay the process by cutting off blood supply to tissues and eliminating nutrients for bacteria to feed on.

Manner of burial: Speedy burial can slow putrefaction. Bodies within deep graves tend to decompose more slowly due to the diminished influences of changes in temperature. The composition of graves can also be a significant contributing factor, with dense, clay-like soil tending to speed putrefaction while dry and sandy soil slows it.

Light exposure: Light can also contribute indirectly, as flies and insects prefer to lay eggs in areas of the body not exposed to light, such as the crevices formed by the eyelids and nostrils. [3]

Endogenous (internal)

Age at time of death: Stillborn fetuses and infants putrefy slowly due to their sterility. Otherwise, however, generally, younger people putrefy more quickly than older people.

Condition of the body: A body with a greater fat percentage and less lean body mass will have a faster rate of putrefaction, as fat retains more heat and it carries a larger amount of fluid in the tissues. [5]

Cause of death: The cause of death has a direct relationship to putrefaction speed, with bodies that died from acute violence or accident generally putrefying slower than those that died from infectious diseases. Certain poisons, such as potassium cyanide or strychnine, may also delay putrefaction, while chronic alcoholism will speed it.

External injuries: Antemortem or postmortem injuries can speed putrefaction as injured areas can be more susceptible to invasion by bacteria.

Delayed putrefaction

Certain poisonous substances to the body can delay the process of putrefaction. They include:


Embalming is the process of preserving human remains by delaying decomposition. This is acquired through the use of embalming fluid, which is a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and various other solvents. The most common reasons to briefly preserve the body are for viewing purposes at a funeral and for medical or religious practices.


Body farms subject donated cadavers to various environmental conditions to study the process of human decomposition. [7] These include The University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropologic Facility, Western Carolina Universities Osteology Research Station (FOREST), Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), Sam Houston State University's Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS), Southern Illinois University's Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research, and Colorado Mesa University's Forensic Investigation Research Station. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, near Sydney, is the first body farm located outside of the United States [8] In The United Kingdom there are several facilities which, instead of using human remains or cadavers, use dead pigs to study the decomposition process. Pigs are less likely to have infectious diseases than human cadavers, and are more readily available without any concern for ethical issues, but a human body farm is still highly sought after for further research. [9] Each body farm is unique in its environmental make-up, giving researchers a broader knowledge, and allowing research into how different environmental factors can affect the rate of decomposition significantly such as humidity, sun exposure, rain or snow, altitude level and more.

Other uses

Putrefaction, the eighth alchemical key of Basil Valentine, 1678, Chemical Heritage Foundation Musaeum Hermeticum 1678 VIII. Clavis 0066.JPG
Putrefaction, the eighth alchemical key of Basil Valentine, 1678, Chemical Heritage Foundation

In alchemy, putrefaction is the same as fermentation, whereby a substance is allowed to rot or decompose undisturbed. In some cases, the commencement of the process is facilitated with a small sample of the desired material to act as a "seed", a technique akin to the use of a seed crystal in crystallization.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Poison substance that causes disturbances to organisms

In biology, poisons are substances that cause death, injury or harm to organisms, usually by chemical reaction or other activity on the molecular scale, when an organism absorbs a sufficient quantity.

Livor mortis Settling of the blood in the lower, or dependent, portion of the body postmortem

Livor mortis, postmortem lividity, hypostasis or suggillation, is the fourth stage of death and one of the signs of death. It is a settling of the blood in the lower, or dependent, portion of the body postmortem, causing a purplish red discoloration of the skin. When the heart stops functioning and is no longer agitating the blood, heavy red blood cells sink through the serum by action of gravity. The blood travels faster in warmer conditions and slower in colder conditions.

Decomposition The process in which organic substances are broken down into simpler organic matter

Decomposition is the process by which organic substances are broken down into simpler organic matter. The process is a part of the nutrient cycle and is essential for recycling the finite matter that occupies physical space in the biosphere. Bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death. Animals, such as worms, also help decompose the organic materials. Organisms that do this are known as decomposers. Although no two organisms decompose in the same way, they all undergo the same sequential stages of decomposition. The science which studies decomposition is generally referred to as taphonomy from the Greek word taphos, meaning tomb.

Coffin birth, also known as postmortem fetal extrusion, is the expulsion of a nonviable fetus through the vaginal opening of the decomposing body of a deceased pregnant woman as a result of the increasing pressure of intra-abdominal gases. This kind of postmortem delivery occurs very rarely during the decomposition of a body. The practice of chemical preservation, whereby chemical preservatives and disinfectant solutions are pumped into a body to replace natural body fluids, have made the occurrence of "coffin birth" so rare that the topic is rarely mentioned in international medical discourse.

Post-mortem interval (PMI) is the time that has elapsed since a person has died. If the time in question is not known, a number of medical/scientific techniques are used to determine it. This also can refer to the stage of decomposition of the body.

Forensic toxicology

Forensic toxicology is the use of toxicology and other disciplines such as analytical chemistry, pharmacology and clinical chemistry to aid medical or legal investigation of death, poisoning, and drug use. The primary concern for forensic toxicology is not the legal outcome of the toxicological investigation or the technology utilized, but rather the obtainment and interpretation of results. A toxicological analysis can be done to various kinds of samples. A forensic toxicologist must consider the context of an investigation, in particular any physical symptoms recorded, and any evidence collected at a crime scene that may narrow the search, such as pill bottles, powders, trace residue, and any available chemicals. Provided with this information and samples with which to work, the forensic toxicologist must determine which toxic substances are present, in what concentrations, and the probable effect of those chemicals on the person.

T-2 mycotoxin chemical compound

T-2 Mycotoxin is a trichothecene mycotoxin. It is a naturally occurring mold byproduct of Fusarium spp. fungus which is toxic to humans and animals. The clinical condition it causes is alimentary toxic aleukia and a host of symptoms related to organs as diverse as the skin, airway, and stomach. Ingestion may come from consumption of moldy whole grains. T-2 can be absorbed through human skin. Although no significant systemic effects are expected after dermal contact in normal agricultural or residential environments, local skin effects can not be excluded. Hence, skin contact with T-2 should be limited.

Maceration (bone) Maceration is a bone preparation technique

Maceration is a bone preparation technique whereby a clean skeleton is obtained from a vertebrate carcass by leaving it to decompose inside a closed container at near-constant temperature. This may be done as part of a forensic investigation, as a recovered body is too badly decomposed for a meaningful autopsy, but with enough flesh or skin remaining as to obscure macroscopically visible evidence, such as cut-marks. In most cases, maceration is done on the carcass of an animal for educational purposes.

Nanotoxicology is the study of the toxicity of nanomaterials. Because of quantum size effects and large surface area to volume ratio, nanomaterials have unique properties compared with their larger counterparts that affect their toxicity. Of the possible hazards, inhalation exposure appears to present the most concern, with animal studies showing pulmonary effects such as inflammation, fibrosis, and carcinogenicity for some nanomaterials. Skin contact and ingestion exposure are also a concern.

Putrefying bacteria are bacteria involved in putrefaction of living matter. Along with other decomposers, they play a critical role in recycling nitrogen from dead organisms.

Skeletonization final stage of death, during which the last vestiges of the soft tissues of a corpse or carcass have decayed or dried to the point that the skeleton is exposed

Skeletonization refers to the final stage of decomposition, during which the last vestiges of the soft tissues of a corpse or carcass have decayed or dried to the point that the skeleton is exposed. By the end of the skeletonization process, all soft tissue will have been eliminated, leaving only disarticulated bones.

A cadaver is a dead human body that is used by medical students, physicians and other scientists to study anatomy, identify disease sites, determine causes of death, and provide tissue to repair a defect in a living human being. Students in medical school study and dissect cadavers as a part of their education. Others who study cadavers include archaeologists and artists.

Medicolegal entomology is a branch of forensic entomology that applies the study of insects to criminal investigations, and is commonly used in death investigations for estimating the post-mortem interval (PMI). One method of obtaining this estimate uses the time and pattern of arthropod colonization. This method will provide an estimation of the period of insect activity, which may or may not correlate exactly with the time of death. While insect successional data may not provide as accurate an estimate during the early stages of decomposition as developmental data, it is applicable for later decompositional stages and can be accurate for periods up to a few years.

The University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, better known as the Body Farm and sometimes seen as the Forensic Anthropology Facility, was started in late 1971 by anthropologist William M. Bass as a facility for study of the decomposition of human remains. It is located a few miles from downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

In forensic entomology, entomotoxicology is the analysis of toxins in arthropods that feed on carrion. Using arthropods in a corpse or at a crime scene, investigators can determine whether toxins were present in a body at the time of death. This technique is a major advance in forensics; previously, such determinations were impossible in the case of severely decomposed bodies devoid of intoxicated tissue and bodily fluids. Ongoing research into the effects of toxins on arthropod development has also allowed better estimations of postmortem intervals.

Microbiology of decomposition

Microbiology of decomposition is the study of all microorganisms involved in decomposition, the chemical and physical processes during which organic matter is broken down and reduced to its original elements.

Chemical process of decomposition

Decomposition in animals is a process that begins immediately after death and involves the destruction of soft tissue, leaving behind skeletonized remains. The chemical process of decomposition is complex and involves the breakdown of soft tissue, as the body passes through the sequential stages of decomposition. Autolysis and putrefaction also play major roles in the disintegration of cells and tissues.

Corpse decomposition is the process in which the organs and complex molecules of a human body break down into simple organic matter over time. In vertebrates, five stages of decomposition are typically recognized: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry/skeletonized. The rate of decomposition of human remains can vary due to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and the availability of oxygen, as well as body size, clothing and the cause of death.


  1. Fredrik C. Kugelberg, Alan Wayne Jones (2007). "Interpreting results of ethanol analysis in postmortem specimens: A review of the literature". Forensic Science International . 165 (1): 10–27. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2006.05.004.
  2. Luff, Arthur. Text-book of forensic medicine, and toxicology (Volume 1 ed.). Longmans, Green and Company, 1895. pp. 57–62. Retrieved April 27, 2016.
  3. 1 2 Vij (January 1, 2008). Textbook of Forensic Medicine And Toxicology: Principles And Practice. Elsevier India. pp. 142–4. ISBN   978-81-312-1129-8.
  4. Gautam Biswas (2012). Review of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. JP Medical Ltd. ISBN   978-93-5025-896-5.
  5. 1 2 Rao, Dinesh (2013). "Putrefaction". Dr. Dinesh Rao's Forensic Pathology. forensicpathologyonline.com. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  6. 1 2 Sharma (January 1, 2007). Concise Textbook of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology. Elsevier India. p. 49. ISBN   978-81-312-1145-8.
  7. Killgrove, Kristina. "These six 'Body Farms' Help Forensic Anthropologists Learn To Solve Crimes". Forbes. Retrieved April 29, 2016.
  8. "Inside the secret Australian body farm helping real-life CSIs". ABC News. October 18, 2016. Retrieved June 9, 2018.
  9. Williams, Anna. "Coming to a field near you? The 'body farms' where human remains decompose in the name of science". International Business Times. Retrieved April 27, 2016.