How Long Does it Take For a Body to Decompose Without Embalming?

How Long Does it Take For a Body to Decompose Without Embalming?

Although it may sound morbid, it’s human nature to wonder about death. Nobody knows what happens after you die, but one thing is certain: the natural process of human decomposition — the postmortem decay of tissue and muscle. Despite the process of decomposition beginning immediately upon death, some western cultures delay its progression through embalming.

What Does Embalming Do?

Embalming is a custom, used mainly in the US and Canada, that temporarily preserves a deceased body so it will be intact for viewing at wakes and funerals. The way in which the corpse is embalmed greatly affects the duration of its preservation. There is no public health benefit to embalming and it is practiced purely for cosmetic purposes; however, in some places, it is prohibited to embalm a person who died from a serious contagious disease.

Process of Decomposition Without Embalming

The rate of decomposition is largely dependent on the cause of death, the weight of the deceased and other environmental factors. For example, bodies decay at a faster rate if they are exposed to the elements or wildlife, if they are in warm environments, or if they are under water. This is why forensic scientists created body farms (warning: article contains image of human decomposition) to study human decomposition rates under various conditions. Below, we focus on the decomposition process without embalming when a body is in a neutral climate, not in a coffin, and the remains are undisturbed.

  • 3 hours postmortem: stiffening of the muscles — aka rigor mortis — sets in.
  • 24-72 hours postmortem: internal organs begin to decompose due to cell death; the body begins to emit pungent odors; rigor mortis subsides.
  • 3-5 days postmortem: as organs continue to decompose, bodily fluids leak from orifices; the skin turns a greenish color.
  • 8-10 days postmortem: the body turns from green to red as blood decomposes and gases accumulate.
  • 2+ weeks postmortem: teeth and nails fall out.
  • 1+ month postmortem: the corpse begins to liquefy into a dark sludge.

Eventually, the last stage of decomposition is skeletonization, which leaves behind nothing but, you guessed it, a skeleton. This can take anywhere from 1 month to several years, depending on the environment, burial, etc. You may be wondering: will a skeleton also decompose? The answer is yes. If animals do not destroy or move the bones, skeletons normally take around 20 years to dissolve in fertile soil. However, in sand or neutral soil, skeletons can remain intact for hundreds of years.

Although human decomposition is a natural process, cleaning up a decomposing body presents health hazards to everybody around it and should be left to professionals. Crime Scene Clean-Up specializes in compassionate and discreet unattended death cleanup services that are available 24/7 near you. Unattended deaths have a high exposure risk to bloodborne pathogens and other biohazards that need to be properly cleaned and disinfected, whether in a home or business. 

If you have been affected by an unattended death, we understand that picking up the pieces in the aftermath is difficult – let us shoulder the burden of the physical cleanup so you can focus on what’s really important. Call (800) 991-3645 to have a professional trauma cleanup crew at your location within hours. We will restore the scene and help you get on the road to recovery.

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