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Decomposition of Dead Bodies

Decomposition of Dead Bodies

When any living organism dies, the body decomposes. This process involves the breakdown of tissue into a more simple form of matter. The decomposition of dead bodies is very essential for the cycle of new growth and species development.
Gaynor Borade
When a living organism dies, the process of decomposition or degeneration of tissue helps to recycle finite chemical composition. This not only helps to generate additional physical space within the biomes of the world inhabited, but also helps in maintaining the balance of life in the ecosystem. The bodies of all living organisms begin to break down or decompose immediately after the condition referred to as death. The process is gradual and involves a phase cascade.

What Happens to Dead Bodies?

The bodies of all creatures decompose on expiration. The process involves distinct phases that are broadly categorized into:
  • Production of vapor.
  • Formation of liquid mass.
The science of taphonomy studies the progression of decomposition as autolysis, putrefaction, bloating, decaying, and diagenesis or drying up. Decomposition takes place under certain conditions such as:
  • Exposure to the elements and insect activity.
  • Medium for waterborne breakdown and marine bacteria.
  • Temperature of the surroundings.
In the case of animals, the process of decomposition begins from the moment of death. The main controlling factors, in the case of animals are autolysis or the tissue breakdown due to internal enzymes and bacterial breakdown. The released gases emit a putrid odor, attracting scavengers and insects such as flesh-flies and blow-flies.

Process of Decomposition

In the case of human beings, once death occurs, tissue breakdown takes place in distinct stages. In the first stage, though there are no physical signs of breakdown, homeostasis ceases and triggers cellular changes. The condition of algor mortis sets wherein the body's temperature cools down considerably, more than that of the surrounding environment. The oxygen-less or anaerobic environment thus created provides the right conditions for bacteria to breakdown proteins, carbohydrates and lipids and create gases, acids, and volatile organic compounds.

In the second phase, the corpse's color changes and there is a distinct odor. The body bloats due to putrefaction and the abdomen turns green. The green color is due to the presence of bacteria in the cecum. Bacteria generates sulfhemoglobin. Gases enter the abdomen and force feces and liquids out. Once these gases enter the face and neck regions, they swell up. This causes misconfiguration of features. The red streaks observed during this phase are the result of blood hemolyzing. The skin becomes fragile and hair comes off easily.

In the third phase of body decomposition, the body cavity bursts, gases escape and the color of the body darkens. It is in this phase that scavengers and insects are most attracted to the decaying body. The bones of the corpse become apparent and the phase lasts for a period that is largely determined by the outside temperature and degree of exposure to the elements. The mummification process thereafter is gradual. The body begins to dry and goes through a process called adipocere formation. There is a sudden loss of body odor and the skin and bones begin to shrink.

The fourth phase witnesses the total breakdown of soft-tissue, prior to skeletonization. This is also the longest phase. The deterioration of the remains is very slow and involves the loss of bone-stem strength. Bone diagenesis finally gives way to mineral composition.