From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Stages of death

Pallor mortis
Algor mortis
Rigor mortis
Livor mortis

Putrefaction is one of seven stages in the decomposition of the body of a dead animal. It can be viewed, in broad terms, as the decomposition of proteins in a process that results in the eventual breakdown of cohesion between tissues and the liquefaction of most organs. It is caused by bacterial or fungal decomposition of organic matter and results in production of noxious odours.[1]


In thermodynamic terms, all organic tissue is a store of chemical energy, which, when not maintained by the constant biochemical maintenance of the living organism, begins to hydrolyse into amino acids, chemically simpler organic components. The breakdown of the proteins of a decomposing body is a spontaneous process, protein hydrolysis, which is accelerated as the anaerobic bacteria of the digestive tract consume, digest, and excrete the cellular proteins of the body.

Putrefaction in human hands after several days underwater in Florida, United States

The bacterial digestion of the cell 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 and cadaverine, 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.

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 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 skeletonisation. This continued consumption also results in the production of ethanol by the bacteria, which can make it difficult to determine the BAC in autopsies, particularly in bodies recovered from water.[2]

Generally, the term decomposition encompasses the biochemical processes that occur from the physical death of the person (or animal) until the skeletonisation 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

  • 2–3 days: Discoloration appears on the skin of the abdomen. The abdomen begins to swell due to gas formation.
  • 3–4 days: The discoloration spreads and discolored veins become visible.
  • 5–6 days: The abdomen swells noticeably and the skin blisters.
  • 2 weeks: The abdomen is bloated; internal gas pressure nears maximum capacity.
  • 3 weeks: Tissues have softened. Organs and cavities are bursting. The nails fall off.
  • 4 weeks: Soft tissues begin to liquefy and the face becomes unrecognizable.

Rate of putrefaction is maximum in air, water, soil, and earth. First external sign of putrefaction in a body lying in air is usually greenish discoloration of the skin over the region of caecum which appears in 12-24 hours. And the first internal sign is usually a greenish discoloration on undersurface of liver. 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.

Factors affecting

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


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

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 both can contribute to the introduction and growth of microorganisms, speeding degradation.

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]


Age of Death: Stillborn fetuses and infants putrefy slowly due to their sterility. Generally, younger people putrefy more quickly than older people.

Condition of the Body: Emaciation slows putrefaction due to diminished moisture and fat contents within the body.

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 invaded by bacteria.

Delayed putrefaction

Certain substances delay putrefaction. Some of them are:


The University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Facility is a body farm established in 1981 to study human putrefaction. Several others have been built in other locations since that time.

Other uses

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".[citation needed]

See also


  1. "putrefaction". Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary. TheFreeDictionary. Retrieved 31 May 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Vij (1 January 2008). Textbook Of Forensic Medicine And Toxicology: Principles And Practice. Elsevier India. pp. 142–4. ISBN 978-81-312-1129-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Gautam Biswas (2012). Review of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. JP Medical Ltd. ISBN 978-93-5025-896-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Sharma (1 January 2007). Concise Textbook Of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology. Elsevier India. p. 49. ISBN 978-81-312-1145-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links