Left unburied and uncovered, here’s what happens to a body:
The fresh stage can last a few days to a week. Rigor mortis initially sets in and cells break down as the lack of oxygen and nutrients prevents them from replenishing themselves.
When bacteria in the gut can no longer be kept in check, they start to reproduce and feed on the body. This produces gas that causes the abdomen to bloat.
Gas building up increases pressure within the body, pushing fluids in between the layers of skin and causing the outer layers to slough off.
With no oxygen to bind to, haemoglobin in the blood binds to sulphur instead, filling the arteries and veins with a greenish-black substance. This gives the flesh an appearance known as ‘marbling’.
Increasing pressure forces the body’s fluids and liquefied organs out of any available orifice. Eyeballs can be dislodged and bodies have even been known to explode.
Chemicals released by the body attract flies, which lay eggs in and around the orifices. Soon after, maggots hatch and begin feeding on the body’s flesh and organs.
Other insects, such as beetles, are attracted to the body, as well as small birds looking to feed on them. Local scavenging animals will also appear to pick the flesh off the bones.
The final stage is skeletonisation, when the soft tissue is fully lost. Wind, rain, erosion and abrasion take over and the bones are disarticulated over the following months and years.
Other things to do when you’re dead
Donating your body to medical science is one way to make yourself useful after death. But what if you want to do something that’s not so ‘run of the mill’?
Car manufacturers like to demonstrate the efficacy of their vehicles’ safety features by showing you slow-motion video of dummies getting thrown about during a collision. What they’re less keen to publicise is that they’ve probably put dead bodies through the same tests to see how the impacts affect their internal organs.
Body Worlds exhibitions feature real corpses and organs that have been preserved through plastination, a technique invented by German doctor Gunther von Hagens. If you’re willing to go on display after your bodily fluids and soluble fat have been replaced by liquid plastic, you could donate your body to the Institute for Plastination.
You can still make yourself useful after you’ve been cremated, depending on what happens to your ashes. Scattered on soil, they’ll act as a general fertiliser but if you want something more specific you can have them added to a Bios Urn, a biodegradable container that’s packed with soil and used for tree seed germination.
An audio recording of your voice or music that held a special meaning for you is one way that loved ones can treasure your memory. If, however, you’d like the keepsake to bear slightly more of your physical presence you can get andvinyly.com to press your ashes into the vinyl on which your voice and music is printed.
Corpses can tell you a lot – if you know how to read them. And just like language, decomposition is dependent on location. Which is why some researchers say we need to start studying the dialect of decay in the UK – find out more in issue 321 of BBC Focus magazine.
- Science Focus Podcast: What it’s really like to die
- In cold blood - how therapeutic hypothermia can save lives
- How long does it take for a body to decompose at sea?
- How do animal bones decompose?
- The Immortalists - can science defeat death?
- The thought experiment: How could I become a fossil?