The Five Stages of Decomposition

Maggot mass on dead pig

Following death, the human body progresses through five basic stages of decomposition. The duration and degree of each stage is largely influenced by the environment (temperature, humidity, etc.), body mass, any wrappings or coverings of the body, and obviously scavenging or other post-mortem disturbances. Additionally, submerged or buried bodies will decompose much differently than bodies left on the ground. This is what I will be referring to below. Here are the general descriptions of the five stages of decomposition:


The fresh stage begins immediately after death when the circulatory system (heart beating/pumping blood) stops functioning. It is during this stage that the blood will settle with gravity creating a condition known as lividity. After several hours the muscles will also begin to stiffen in a process known as rigor mortis.  The body temperature will also begin to acclimate to the environment.  Cells will begin to break down and release enzymes during a process called autolysis which can cause blisters on the skin. The anaerobic organisms in the digestive tract will begin to multiply, producing acids and gases (the source of the bad odors). This process is often referred to as putrefaction.


As the name implies, the gases being produced during putrefaction begin to build and will give the body a distended appearance. Gases and fluid will eventually escape through the natural orifices as the pressure builds.  As the gastrointestinal bacteria multiply and can lead to conditions like marbling which is a discoloration pattern seen in the skin. You may also see green discoloration in the abdomen areas and eventually a darkening (blackish) coloring of the skin overall as the process advances. Interestingly enough; I remember one time I was giving a lecture on forensic entomology at a college campus and after the lecture a serious looking young black student approached me. She asked me why I only showed pictures of black victims in my presentation. I was a bit taken back and briefly confused as I ran through a mental recap of the cases I presented. I finally told her that all of the victims were in fact white (Caucasian) in life but due to this process their skin darkened. It was an eye-opening experience and I made sure to describe this process more effectively when lecturing the public.

Marbeling on tissue

Active Decay:

During his phase the body begins to lose much of it’s fluids and mass (tissue) through purge and insect and/or vertebrate scavenging (coyote, fox, lion, etc). During this phase you may see very large maggot masses and notice a considerable increase in foul odors.

Advanced Decay:

This phase is the end of the active decay process. Temperatures can either speed up (heat) or slow down (cold) how quickly a body reaches this phase. The body has very little body mass and soil staining of the surrounding soils is still evident. This soil staining (from body fluids) may actually kill some of the surrounding vegetation temporarily. Maggots will migrate away from the body to pupate and flies will cease laying eggs.


This phase is the last measurable stage of decomposition. The timing of this stage varies widely by environment. For example, a body in Florida in July (hot/humid) may reach this stage in a week while in the Winter in the Rocky Mountains (cold/arid) it might take months. If there is any skin left it will be leather-like and very tough. Mostly the body is reduced to bones and connective tissue. There is no biomass available for diverse insect colonization. Some beetles and adventitious insects may colonize a body for shelter or feeding on other insects and connective tissue. Over time the bones may “bleach” (turn white) with exposure to sunlight and eventually will begin to exhibit cracks after several years. These weathering cracks are distinctive and would not be confused with a fresh break (injury) unless by an inexperienced analyst.

Advanced decay stage on ribs

Knowing or describing the correct stage of decomposition is not a critical issue for most authors. However, if you plan on describing the state of the body it would be wise to give the reader a little information to justify the scene. For example, if your victim has been missing six months but still has visible tattoos on their remaining skin, reasonable readers are going to wonder how that is possible. One way to address that is through dialog. You could have one detective comment to the other about the extremely cold winter they have had and how fortunate they are that the cold weather helped preserve the evidence. Readers will give you quite a bit of wiggle room but recognizing when your timeline crosses these stages will help keep your writing realistic and your readers happy.

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on December 10, 2011, in The Autopsy, The Crime Scene and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 126 Comments.

  1. I think that this information is very enlightening and because I all ways thought that the body is a amazing and interesting thing. when I wasz younger I was all ways into forensics but I kinda stopped looking into it but now from reading this iam definatly reconsitering

  2. i really like this website i gives lots of info

  3. how about a body submerged in water?

    • Water is a very challenging environment because several factors such as depth, temperature, salinity, and current can greatly affect rates of decomposition. Add to that the destructive forces of scavengers and it really gets tricky. What is the scene you have written?

  4. Could you tell me how long it takes for a body to get from death to the active decay stage if left out to deal with the English weather at this time of year?

  5. Thanks! This tells me exactly what I need to know! My character’s body has been in a hollow tree trunk in a tropical rainforest (during the wet season) for about 3 months, so I’m guessing there won’t be much left…

  6. I am writing a fantasy novel where they are returning to the scene of a skirmish after 4 days of cool, early spring weather. They are recovering bodies for burial but also salvaging loose fitting chainmail armor from the dead. I currently have it written with a fairly vague description of the bodies as bloated and discolored. The bodies are atop a 20 foot high fortification so there would be no scavanging by ground animals. This fortification is in the middle of extensive grasslands. Most of the bodies are outside, exposed to open air and sunlight, a few are inside a tower. Does this level of decomposition sound correct for the weather conditions and time passed and can you offer any additional details that would add to the authenticity?

    • Yeah, that’s passable. There will be some fly activity and you can have your characters comment about the small “worms” (maggots) on the bodies around the mouths and any wounds. The smell won’t be that terrible, especially outside, and in times past (middle ages even 19th C) people were a lot more tolerant of rancid and decomp smells as they encountered them more. Not like today!

      • Thanks! And don’t worry, these guys are soldiers. They’ll know a maggot when they see one. This novel is the sequel to one in which there was a catacylismic earthquake and an ultraplynian volcanic eruption. I ran those sections by a geology professor for fact checking. This is a world where magic works, but so do physics, organic chemistry, and all other natural forces. I try to get all my physical events as accurate as possible.

  7. Hi.. I’m working on a television show and I’m having to paint a fake corpse that has been dug up after being in the ground for about six weeks.. It has been wrapped in plastic and zipped up in a body bag for the entire time it has been buried… The area is warm, in the woods, with a lake nearby.. How would this sort of situation affect the coloring and overall look of the corpse? Any info is greatly appreciated. -mm

    • Ground moisture is a bigger deal than ambient air. The higher the moisture the greater likelihood of adipose forming (which looks like white mold or soap). The tissue will have lost the vital coloring so keep it in the black or dark brown color range. The Tales from the Crypt figure isn’t to far off the mark I don’t think. Hope that helps.

    • I forgot to ask, the corpse wasn’t embalmed correct?

      • Thanks a ton for your response.. It helped a lot with the coloring and he came out great for what we needed.. ;-)

  8. So if I throw the body into the sea how long will it take to decay ?

  9. Is it possible for putrefaction to begin within 24 hrs of a corpse being deceased? I’m confused about this stage. Let’s say if someone died in their home, and wasn’t found for a day, would this be possible in approx 80 degree temp?

    • Hi Sandi, putrefaction is basically another word for decomposition and refers to the breakdown of the soft tissues through production of enzymes and liquifying of the organs. The process begins immediately after death and progresses more rapidly in warmer humid environments than cold dry ones. Think of it as basically the dissolving of the soft tissues (which is what produced the strong odors of decomposition). Some researchers place it between bloat and active decay stages but I believe it is best used to describe the broader breakdown of tissues and organs. And yes, in some tropical environments human remains can be reduced to bones and connective tissues in about 72 hours. So in your scenario (if the victim was near a sunlit window) at 80 degrees F you would start to see discoloration in areas like the abdomen and maybe some purge from the mouth or nose but it might take another day or two to see bloating or lesions in the skin depending on temperature fluctuations, position of the body, what they were wearing or wrapped in, scavenging by pets, etc. Does that help?

      • Yes, thank u for your detailed response. The case that I am referring to involves a female, who evidently ended up with a high level of morphine. 0.19 mg/L. She was 5’7″, 169 lbs. Found on her hands & feet, looking uncerneath her bed (that’s where she kept her medications, hidden from her mother in law, because she had goten into them once before). What’s puzzling is that her hands and feet were “black”. The left side of her face was on a pillow on the floor (which was carpeted) and that side of her face (for lack of a better term, as I’m not an expert in this) had reached a gross level of decomposition. I’m curious as to why only her hands & feet were totally black? Is that possible, and then like you stated, there was the discoloration of the abdominal area. She was wearing cotton pajamas, top and bottom.

  10. The story I’m writing now focuses heavily on the decomposition of bodies. I had this in basic forensics, but it’s a lot to take in in one semester. Putrefaction and odor would likely be noticeable in a temperate zone in fluctuating fall weather (say vacillating temps between 45-70 degrees F) in about 4 days to a week, right? (assuming no one had heat or AC on?)

  11. Hey, i was just wondering if a something were installed into a dead body to keep the heart moving (like a pacemaker or something) would that slow down the decomposition process? and if so how?

    • So sorry I missed this comment Jemima, interesting question though. The short answer is no. The body requires more than just the circulation of blood; it also requires oxygen (among other things like fluids). The body is pretty complex and the cells need quite a bit of maintenance to survive (this is why you see people in “vegetative” states monitored with breathing machines, IV, etc. and of course 24 hour medical supervision. Interesting idea though.

  12. The story I’m writing has a six-year-old abducted and murdered, and his body found burried in a shallow grave in some kind of earth/soil nine months later. Am I right in thinking that by this stage it would be just bones and connective tissue? What about his clothes? What kinds of materials would be more likely to last this long, so they could be used to identify him? And am I right in thinking that his watch would still be recognisable?

    • As luck would have it we just concluded a two year study on buried bloody clothing (2 years). The denim did not hold up well but rayon, cotton T-shirt, and pair of hiking boots (canvass) did very well and were very recognizable (logos/lettering). The watch should be fine and a “sports” watch (rated for diving and extreme sports) may even be running. Depending on the soil the soft tissue will likely be dry and leathery but if the soil is wet then there may be adipose formation. The connective tissue will still be there. Hair will be sloughed off but still present. You’d be able to get DNA from teeth, or suitable tissue. If the soil has a high clay content you may even see tool marks from the shovel on the sides of the grave vault. Good luck!

  13. I’m Italian. As a teenager I used to go watch the exhumation of the bodies from the local cemetery. Back then it was after 25 years from burial (wood coffin) Because of shortage of space, the bodies are now exhumed at a quicker pace. I’m checking on the exact number of years. i was there in September and when I walked by a freshly emptied grave i was surprised by a strange sort of sweet, not really sweet but nauseating smell, seemed to come from the dirt. It was everywhere, I couldn’t get away from it. I don’t remember much smell from my teenagers years even so I would sometime be there at the opening of the coffin or whatever was left of it. I’m describing the strange odor in one of my books and doubt I would be believed. Any input?

    • Hi Maria, I think your description is very good. I agree there is a kind of sweet smell mixed with a toxic stench that makes you nauseous. Once you experience it you never forget it. Do you know if the older bodies were embalmed? Embalming preserves the body very well. I remember once in college we exhumed the body of a soldier whose mother believed to still be alive. His fingers were nearly life-like allowing us to roll fingerprints to confirm identity. This was after twenty five years of burial. Modern burials may employ a number of things to cut down on the decomposition of the remains and coffin including a vault, improved coffin materials, embalming, etc. If you haven’t visited any mortuaries you may want to to see what kinds of practices are being employed in the area. Obviously you’re above the water table in your area correct? It’s not uncommon to find mold, fungus, insects (like the coffin fly), etc. in the coffin as well. Hope that helps.

      • Thanks, yes, you gave me enough confidence to use ‘sweet’ in the description. This particular cemetery in at the base of the small Dolomites. Like everything else in Italy it is controlled by the Catholic church, so no embalming allowed and until recently cremating was also a big no-no. Rules are slowly changing. Don’t forget, Italy didn’t have divorce until 1972, again, religion. I have been living in the States since 1969 but go back to visit my family as often as possible and I do have an historian of sort working with me on this project. Was there in September and was able to bring back many photos and as luck would have it, happened to visit the cemetery the afternoon of an exhumation. They still dig by hand…in the past the exhumed bones if not claimed would be left to dry and then simply dumped in a large crypt below the grounds, sealed by large slabs of granite. Granite and marble are very common where I come from. If I can ever help you with Northern Italian info, don’t hesitate. You are a great source of knowledgeable information. Mille Grazie.

  14. at what stage in the post mortum does the “normal” decomposition of human body begin the turn green, and the smell is overwhelming enough that there must be a “closed” casket, body requires “air tight” bag “inside” the casket? Hours, and days? is this possible within a 4 hours time frame, from death, inside a house on a leather couch? Below “normal” air much cooler air than normal, inside the house? Also, the body was literally unable to be inbalmed, according to the funeral home, directors….hum?

  15. My friend died suddenly abroad and i may have to identify the body before she is repatriated. She will be almost two weeks dead. what should i expect?

    • Sorry to hear about your friend but if she was embalmed and refrigerated then you shouldn’t worry about her appearance. When in doubt ask the medical examiner to examine her first nad let you know if there are any issues to be concerned with.

  16. This article is great. Thanks. The story i’m formulating is where the killer is playing with decomposition times to make it hard to have an alibi pinned on them. Can you tell me what would alter rates of decomposition? Perhaps air tight containers followed by submergence in heavily salted water etc. thanks!!! :)

    • Any change in “environment” like salt water will leave traces (salt) that can be detected. Changes in temperature are more common so keeping the body refrigerated or in a really hot room relative to the location recovered might work better for your plot.

  17. I have a question regarding a fantasy I’m working on. Around a year prior to the start of my story, a knight or warrior in partial armor will have climbed a mountain side beyond the tree line to an old dragon’s cave, slain it, then died of his own wounds. I’m thinking of using an environment similar to northern New Zealand with an elevation around 4,900 feet where a “Strong maritime influence serves to cool summer and restrict tree growth” ( ) My question is, what sort of state would the body be in when the main character finds it?

    • Hi Phil, that is a very interesting question. I don’t have any experience with bodies in armor however, I suspect in the daytime it would act to both increase daily temperatures (assuming the body is in sunlight) and protect the loss of soft tissue from scavengers including birds. If the sun is out then decomposition should be accelerated. I don’t have any experience in New Zealand so I’m not sure about daily conditions but without excessive rain or cold temps I think you could see a rapid decomposition of tissues in 72-96 hours with temperatures in the 90′s and high humidity. Here in Colorado we’re at 5,200 feet and go up above 14,000 feet so we’re a bit higher and drier. Hope that helps.

      • On the one hand, I was planning on having him die inside the cave so it wouldn’t be an issue of sunlight and depending on how far into the cave it is, there would be a moderately stable climate that might be warmer then the outside environment but still possibly cool. The presence of a dragon, even a rotting one would scare off animals like bats leaving little more then cave dwelling insects. Your elevation is certainly close enough and I’m not tied down to any thing specific, I just want it close enough that a young man could reach past the tree line with out modern mountain climbing gear or significantly warmer clothes then he would normally have. My fictional country would be best described as a rocky coastal plain with a moderately sized crescent shaped mountain range to it’s west separating it from other nation states to the N.W., West and S.W. I intend to have the mountain change from a slope to a series of shear rock faces above what ever elevation the cave is at, resembling a wave of rock crashing back towards the ocean. Imagine a much larger, rockier, state of Washington with the mountains further away from the coast. The inhabitants living under the thumb of a dragon would have a fear of nature and of any thing flammable so they keep the nearby forests cut down as much as the small communities could manage.

        I’m sure this is far more information then you were expecting but I hope it can help you better answer my question about the condition of a human body in these circumstances. There is an aspect of my story that would require the cave to remain fairly dry but ultimately, I believe the human would only be exposed to moderate temperatures for much of that year and of course bacteria and insects. I’m sure that would be enough to strip the tissue from the bones and prevent any kind of mummification. In my story, the dragon’s decomposition would only be as a result of bacteria “natural” to it because I intend to describe the presence of a rotting magical creature as repugnant and untouched even by insects. I’m sure you don’t have any experience with dragons but if you have any thoughts of the state of decay for a large animal after a year with out the presence of maggots or any other insects or scavengers, I would appreciate that input as well.

  18. Is there a substance that can be used to speed up the decomposition process of a dismembered body wrapped in plastic (or some other type of) sheeting and buried deep in the woods? The sheeting is used to catch the blood from the dismembered bodies

    I have a serial killer who is picking off young girls over a number of years and no trace has ever been found of any of his victims. How long would nature take to decompose the body without artificial help?

    Many thanks

    • Hi Jacky, thanks for stopping by to ask a question. On the extreme end your killer could use a vat of acid but that is very dangerous for the killer. Altering temperature is the best way to influence decomposition. If you dismember the body then the tissues, organs, etc normally “fermenting” in the body won’t have the same intensity and may slow the decomposition process. Additionally, burying the body will generally stabilize temperatures and again may slow decomposition because temperatures (even below permafrost) are fairly mild. That’s why our ancestors used root cellars. A body wrapped in plastic on the surface of the ground would decompose more quickly in summer than if buried. Buried bodies can survive a very long time. In my area they sometimes dig up Native American skeletons or early pioneers when doing construction and the bones and human artifacts could survive for well over a hundred yeas. As to your question about how long a body will survive that is a tricky one depending on environment and temperature (as well as burial or submersion). In my area it isn’t uncommon for larger scavengers to begin dis-articulating the body after a week and spreading it out over large distances. Coyotes and others will also rebury or cache the remains (in smaller pieces) over large distances making, in effect, numerous small clandestine graves. This makes discovery and recovery exponentially more difficult than one body in an undisturbed grave. I hope that helps in your story. Good luck with the writing!

  19. I hope you don’t mind another particular question, as I could not find the answer in any of the previous posts (proving that every death has its own unique features)! Suppose a man fell into a pit about five feet deep, broke his neck and died. Then someone came along and buried him in the pit without treating or moving the body. Four days later, the body was dug up and removed from the pit. If this happened in mid-July in the mid-Atlantic states when there had been no rain for weeks, what condition would the body be in when it was exhumed? How would it smell? How difficult would it be for three teens to remove the body from the pit?

    Thank you for you answers and for this very helpful website! I have bookmarked it and shared it with my writing friends!

    • A body buried underground will be fairly insulated from daily temperatures, scavengers, and most common forensic insects. I suspect the body would be in some stage of bloat and smell acrid. When the suspects remove the body there should be some skin slippage as well.This may cause some of your suspects to vomit and will certainly generate dialog.The teens will also likely puncture the body with their shovels as they excavate causing gases to escape and increasing the smell. Without doubt they will have to dig around the body with their hands to release it from the soil. Should make for an interesting scene I should think. Hope that helps.

    • This wont help with the issue of a buried body but it might help gain a perspective on the effect of the odor. On an episode of ‘Mythbusters’, possibly one focusing on Jimmy Hoffa, the crew looked into the stereotypical situation of the mob disposing of a body in cement.They used a pig since many aspects of its tissue is similar to humans. The experiment did not go well but I think watching this episode might help you visualize the effect the odor will have on your characters.

  20. Outstanding! Thank you!

  21. My husband was found dead after drinking himself to death. It was 2 weeks before they found him. It was winter but the days were warm and cold..a variation of temps but the trunk was setting on full and had been running for a fews days and nights before it ran out of gas. so the heat was on for a while. The man that found him said he looked fine the only thing he seen different was where he had placed his hand on the steering wheel and his fingers were black. I cannot believe this. They said the smell was so bad when they opened the truck door that they couldn’t approach the inside to slip the trunk out of gear. After a weekend of him being in a freezer before cremation they begged me not to see him or go into the room where he was to bid my farewell to him. My head cannot get it out of my mind whether I made the right decision. I need to know, how bad it was.. how bad he would had looked and if I made the right decision of not seeing him.. please I need to know how bad it would had been if I had seen him.. Please I have to know.

  22. Hello… I need a bit-o-advice, please. I’m working on a piece of fiction in which a body (in a vehicle) is recovered from a quarry in Southern California. I would really appreciate your expertise on the probable condition of the remains. I have done some research and my current understanding is that normal decomposition is delayed in cold, deep water such that a body might be surprisingly well preserved even after a long period of immersion. I think these are also suitable circumstances for the formation of adipocere (?) / goose-skin which also slows down decomposition. BUT… the body, in this case, has been immersed for ten years and would, no doubt, have eventually provided a feast for passing fishes and etc.
    The body is male, late twenties/early thirties, 6’1”, ~160 lbs, no sign of struggle prior to immersion. If he was wearing a seatbelt is it possible that the body would have remained in a relatively static position for ten years? – Thanks in advance for your time. I really appreciate any advice you can offer. – AEB

    • Hi Amy, thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure of water temps in southern CA but I suspect they are a lot warmer than conditions I’ve experienced. That being said, decomposition would be slower than in the ambient air. Fresh water scavengers like crayfish will also do some damage if they can get access to the body. Quarries, especially small one, generally have little turbulence so movement of the body will probably be limited to gravity or vehicle shifting on an unstable slope. Vehicle orientation is also a consideration (if the vehicle rests on it’s roof) and of course the most “damage” typically occurs when the vehicle is recovered. It’s better to “raise” the vehicle with airbags but some agencies don’t have access to this equipment and they just attach a tow cable and pull the vehicle out. This can cause a lot of jarring and no matter what there will be a flush effect when the water begins to drain from the vehicle. I’m assuming the vehicle windows are up and intact and the doors are closed. After ten years of submersion there will likely be massive loss of soft tissue and dis-articulation of skeletal elements. Of course, clothing will help to keep some of these remains “together” and the feet may show better preservation in the shoes than other parts of the body. I doubt very much you will see any adipose after a decade because the tissue will be largely gone of not completely stripped, even in cooler water. I hope that helps.

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. Not only is it terribly interesting and educational but it’s very kind of you to offer your expertise! Hope all is well – Amy

  23. Hi, I’m working on a story set around present day Los Angeles where a Spanish Influenza style virus has killed several people. If they were left outside in the summer, for three to five days, what kind of decay would have set in by that time? Thanks in advance.

    • If they were exposed to full sun and naked or partially clothed they would probably be in the bloat phase with large maggot masses around the natural orifices. The abdomen would likely be distended and turning patches of green and yellow in color. There may also be some domestic animal scavenging which could dis-articulate limbs, hands, or feet. Birds are also very opportunistic. The stench would be quite pungent up close and if in a residential neighborhood I suspect someone would have smelled it by then. This all assumes hot days with no rain or major cloud cover in which case decomposition would be slowed a little.

  24. What would be left of a body that is wrapped in plastic, the ends wrapped with duct tape, buried or hidden a closet of an abandoned building after 30 years? Haven’t decided on buried or closet just yet. In my book it’s a thirty year old crime with 5 bodies.

    • Interesting question. After 30 years in almost any environment (wet/dry) there would be a lot of decomposition/dessication of the remains as buried bodies are generally cooler as the ground acts as an insulator. The plastic coverings (soft) will decompose eventually. There may be some mold but I suspect that micro-organisms, insects, and even rodents may remove a lot of the biomass (tissues) from the remains. You’ll probably see hair, connective tissue, bones, and any human artifacts like jewelry, dental fillings, buttons, etc. I think if you describe the remains as “skeletal” in appearance with mold and discolored soil I think you’d be fine.

  25. I have been given a case to consider where there are two victims in an apartment. One in the bathroom whose body is warm, with no livor mortis, slight rogor mortis and eggs of which some had developed to the 1st instar larval stage, this second body in the lounge showed distinct livor mortis and rigor mortis with a rectal temperature of 14 Celsius. The evidence shows a struggle and an argument before hand but I can’t make sense of the times of death as the status of the bodies are so different. Would you be able to help at all? thank you!

  26. I have a character who was killed and her baby cut out of her. The body was discard in the off an isolated road and it is four mouths before her body is discovered. My question is will there still be visible evidence that a baby was cut from her or would that have to come from a forensic report

    • A lot of that depends on the location (environment). IN the summer the decomposition will be more rapid and the remains may be greatly reduced to the point where evidence in soft tissue is lost. In winter months the preservation should be better and the dessicated skin may show evidence of the trauma. Of course, after four months there will likely be some animal scavenging, especially in rural locations. Those scavengers may destroy a lot of evidence and scatter remains over large distances. Hope that helps.

  27. Thanks! I was wrong on timeline. It’s two months and it’s Fall–but great point about scavengers.

  28. I already think I know the body state of the victim in my story, but I’m wondering about his clothes. It seems lucky for me that you just finished a clothing study! Body left lying unburied in the woods for 2 years. Four-season climate with hot humid summers and cold winters (St. Louis MO area). He’d be wearing regular-Joe clothing, like a pair of jeans and a cotton blend T-shirt. How intact would this clothing be after 2 years of exposure? Would his bones be bare, or still covered in clothing? Would jeans disintegrate faster than sweat pants or khakis? Thanks in advance.

    • Most of the damage will likely come from scavengers (vertebrate and avian) that will be disarticulating the body during the initial 6 months-year. The clothing you describe should all decompose at similar rates. Things like labels, rivets, zippers, shoes, etc have much longer life spans. This is important if your victim has reason to write their name on the clothing labels. In MO, most of the tissue should be gone and the body reduced to skeletal/connective tissue and some parts may have been carted off and cached by scavengers. Hope that helps.

      • Thanks! I still don’t have a sense of the condition of the fabric though. I understand some could be torn by animals moving the body around, but I’m wondering about the fabric condition generally. Would the body actually appear to be unclothed when found, due to the damage from scavengers? Or would the clothing be fairly intact still, just faded and torn in places? Or clumps of unraveling threads? Or gone altogether, like hair? I have no idea how fabric holds up to exposure to the elements for 2 years. With plastic and even canvas, I have some idea… but not clothing-type fabric. Thanks again.

  29. Hi. Thank you so much for this incredible blog!!! I have a character that has been dead in his home for three days. The weather is moderate spring in the midwest. My goal is to get the police into the home by means of a welfare check based on odor. Is three days in low to mid 60 degree weather a reasonable time for the odor to be noticable outside of the home?

    • Maybe if there is a door ow window open of if the victim lives in an apartment os similar “attached” housing. You might even have neighbors see “swarms” of flies gathering around the open window. Of course there are other reasons to do welfare checks other than odor. Missing work, not returning calls from friends or family, or missing appointments. Hope that helps.

  30. After sooo many investigations and what not on body decomposition I finally found what I was after…LOL…What happens when a body is left 15 years in the weather, considering Canadian weather? In winter gets very cold, but summer tends to be hot and humid, also would a DNA can show whether it is male or female and race?

  31. Julio, I think the winters are immaterial given the summers, over that many years. You don’t need DNA evidence to determine gender or race, the skeleton should be enough.

  32. jameswhitworth

    Hi, I am writing a novel where a woman’s body was bricked up in a cellar. It is discovered five years later. I am assuming it will just be bone (is this correct?). What would the clothing be like (denim and cotton, with trainers)? Thanks.

    • Depending on the humidity and air movement the body may be dessicated (dry leathery appearance) but largely “intact”. The clothing may be recognizable, especially the labels since they are typically synthetic fibers. If the body is exposed to outside air, rodents, insects, etc then the tissue may be largely gone but connective tissue, hair, and man made artifacts may be present. Shoes typically don’t show a lot of degradation.

  33. Hi, I’m living in Iran. I have a question.
    According to your description, so three months after the death and burial in the warm and humid climate, with the exception of the skeleton and teeth, nothing remains of the body?

  34. Hi, I’m writing a novel in which my dead character is a Labrador retriever. His body is lying outside in sun, daily highs in the 90s, very low humidity. What would be the condition of the body after 10 days? Thanks so much in advance :)

    • Not a lab! Why couldn’t you pick a poodle or schnauzer? Appearance wise the coat may still look somewhat “normal” from a few feet away. The soft tissue (under the coat) will likely be gone and the body will have a “deflated” look. There will undoubtedly be large maggot masses and adult fly activity at both ends (mouth filled and large masses along interface between body and ground). The smell will be pungent and sour. Other insects like beetles and ants will be migrating through the coat and around the body. Birds will also be visiting the body as well as other scavengers regardless of urban or rural setting. Hope that helps. Next time please consider a cat ;)

  35. Thank you so so much!!!! Your site is so very interesting. Really enjoyed your post on the M vac!

  36. Thanks for such an informative site.

    I recently read (2 minutes ago) that Kennewick Man’s bones were found next to the Columbia River, mostly intact. They were not connected but 90% of the bones were recovered. Dated 9200 years old.

    I would have assumed the bones would have broken down to tiny fragments and/or dust in the Northwest US environment, especially next to a river.

    Next up I found a story on the Spirit Cave Mummy, two people wrapped in tule mats, who had been buried in a cave. One was partially mummified and estimated at the time of discovery (1940) to be 1500-2000 years old.The body wore leather moccasins that were also preserved. In 1996 mass spectrometry dated the deeper body and artifacts 9400 years old.

    So apparently, under the right conditions, organic material, including human flesh, can survive a looonng time.

    I could not find any evidence mentioned online that the mummies had been embalmed.

    In my story, a body is discovered in a dry cave in Central Texas (a lot of dry and wet caves here). I wanted to know what level of decompsoition might occur, especially if the cave was mostly sealed so most mammals and creatures larger than mice would not have access.

    • The tissue would be mostly dessicated (like old shoe leather) but a fair amount of it may still be present along with connective tissue, hair, and any human artifacts (jewelry, eye wear, wallet, etc.)

  37. HI – THIS IS VERY EDUCATIONAL STUFF! From reading your blog I guess that if a person was left unburied and untouched in a room for about five years, then he/she would be reduced to a skeleton with just some leathery skin remaining? What about any smell – would some still be present five years later and if so, would it be minimal? Thank you for any help – I am writing a novel and this is a key element!

    • Hi Monica, yes there would be some faint smell. More of a musty smell. There may be insect crass, pet fecal material, and other waste in the room/residence as well since most folks that don’t remove a body won’t remove other foul things either. If you’ve ever been inside an old abandoned building you begin to get the idea. The smaller the room the more intense the smell will likely be. Keep in mind that some detectives and CSIs have pretty strong tolerance of foul odors. So something that is really pungent to a regular citizen may not register much to a seasoned professional. It might be interesting to show the different reactions if you happen to have different characters on scene.

      • Thank you so much for your reply – it is very informative! I really do appreciate your comments and your kindness in replying so promptly. Many thanks!

  38. First, thank you for this incredibly helpful blog! And for taking the time to answer so many questions. May all your good karma return to you threefold.
    My question is related to what I would think is a common scenario: a body killed in one place then dumped in a lake. The body was moved from the crime scene within a half hour (so I’m assuming lividity would be interrupted?), then gets dumped into a fairly deep reservoir lake within about 45 mins. of death. The weather conditions are fairly warm autumn in the humid Southeast US (80s during the day, 40s-50s at night). How long before it resurfaces? What would the body look/smell like at that point? I’m assuming skin maceration would occur, but how severely? Obviously fish and crawfish, etc., would probably have scavenged the flesh – how much so, do you think? Would the body be shockingly disgusting (to non-forensic types, of course) or surprisingly lifelike?
    Again, I really, really appreciate your time!

    • Hi D.R., thanks for the kind words. Dumping bodies in lakes is not very common unless you happen to have a lot of them in close proximity. In all my years I’ve only dealt with a handful. However, may be more common in coastal areas or states like Minnesota where lakes are more numerous. Your question is a bit challenging in that there are so many factors that can influence the buoyancy and decomposition of the victim. Buoyancy is dependent on a number of factors including temperature (thermals), body mass and integrity, structure (trees, weeds, etc.), current, etc. It may be three days or it may never resurface. Water temperature is generally more relevant than air temperature and water acts as an insulator. Aside from these natural elements there are the cultural (man made) influences. Criminals generally take steps to weight a body in a water dump. They may add wrappings or apply some other type of device to sink the remains. They don’t want them to float and be detected. This action artificially delays or completely restricts surfacing. However, there are some common conditions one can witness even after a few days in warm water. You may see skin slippage, especially on the extremities. In some cases the skin of the hands comes off in what some refer to as “gloving”. The same thing can happen to the feet although you may not see this if shoes are properly affixed. There can be significant tissue loss by crustaceans and some of these can even be found inside the body or clothing. It is possible to find other damage by boat propellers or entanglement in sub-surface structures. Postmortem injuries like these may be differentiated from peri-mortem injuries by the lack of hemorrhaging (assuming the tissue is still in good condition). The body may putrefy but the odor will increase more after it is removed from the water. Any body in advanced decomposition can be pretty disturbing even to professionals. I’ve seen seasoned pathologists take a short break at times. There are odor eliminators you can use at autopsy but there’s nothing to shield yo from the sights.

      • Thank you for all that! My goal is to describe a body that isn’t too putrefied to be recognizable – some decomp would be apparent, but it would still look human, and a non-forensic person would look at the remains and, while shocked, still be able to see the humanity of the person – that is, pre-bloat. Does that make sense?
        So if I were to make the victim around 24-30 hours dead, dumped in a cool lake with poor weighting (say the rope slipped off as soon as the body began its natural process of floating to the surface), could I describe her as pale, with eyes, nose, fingertips, and other small extremities eaten off by crustaceans/fish? Would she necessarily be bloated? Would her scalp and hair still be intact? If not, how soon would she need to be discovered to still look “human”? Obviously, creating a realistic scenario that leads to an accurate time of death is an important detail to help the investigators find her killer!
        Again, many thanks for all your time and help.

  39. Hi, I buried my small dog of 11 pounds, on 9th June this year. She was covered with normal salt and a layer of salt was also placed beneath her (total 5 kg salt). Could you tell me if salt has slowed down the decomposition process? and if so then how long will it take to decompose her body? Can the insects enter through some of her exposed body part (e.g Legs) that were not covered fully with salt?or only the internal microbes and enzymes will be able to decompose her body and not the external insects? or will the body dry up eventually without much of decomposition? I am concerned for the salt as I was not aware of slow decomposition due to salt earlier.
    I am curious to know this and I have researched a lot on reaction of salt on decomposition of dead body but could not find much.
    I will be highly obliged if you kindly reply to my questions.

  40. Hi there, this site is wonderful and just what I’ve been looking for. I have a child character, aged about 5, dressed in jeans shorts and a t-shirt and bare feet, buried in a garden (which is next to a beach). She was not wrapped in anything, and has been there for about 10 days. It’s winter – in Australia, so temps range from 3 degrees Celsius to 18. I need her to be recognizable, fairly quickly. My main character sees something ‘sticking out’ of the earth, so the child has not been buried deep. I also have a fox I need to use. Could you please let me know what would be left of her, what she would smell/look like, and whether my fox could come in handy? Thanks so much for your time and all these great answers.

    • Sorry for the late reply. At ten days the body will become attractive to scavengers so perhaps a passer-by sees the fox digging in the garden and goes in to investigate. The body will be recognizable but darker (discolored from decomposition). Her clothing should be recognizable and the unearthing of the victim will be more dramatic if the clothing has some distinctive colors or emblems on it. She may also have other artifacts with her like a backpack or something. Communities usually know when a child is missing so after ten days (assuming she’s a “normal” child from a “normal” family) everyone will be looking for her and she’ll be all over the news. This will help in identifying her because most communities are not missing multiple children at the same time. I hope that helps.

      • Thank you, that’s all very helpful. And you’ve nailed something about my character too – she’s not a normal child from a normal family. She’s slipped under the radar… Cheers Anna

  41. If the person perished in a cave that is damp and around 65˚ would the bones be completely turned to dust in 400 years if the acidity levels in the cave were right?

  42. Very interesting blog. I am approaching a scene where the police find the body of a missing woman in northern California. She was killed in the first week of December and isn’t found until the end of January. The area where her body lays is a wooded area with rugged terrain, where she is exposed to partial sunlight, intermittent rain. Cold, damp temperatures at night and in the morning (40-55º at night and 50-70º during the day). The area is subject to coastal fog and is approximately 2500-3000 above sea level. How badly will the decomposition be? Reading through the discussion, I’ve ascertained that her clothing could remain intact. That’s very helpful. I’m wondering if the police will recognize distinguishing features, such as a strawberry birthmark beneath her right ear.

    • Cooler temps may slow decomposition but I would say decomposition may be far enough along to obscure a birthmark. It makes it a little more interesting for the readers I think when the characters have to work for an identification. You might consider other identifiers such as dental work, implants, or other things that must be analyzed for an identification.

  43. If a body was not embalmed and had been buried in a shallow grave for 5 years, upon discovery what would be apparent on said body?

    • Assuming there was no scavenging the remains would likely be skeletonized with dessicated tissues and connective tissues present. Some human artifacts like jewelry, outsoles, buttons, etc would still be recognizable. The victim’s hair would likely be present. If the soil is wet then some of the tissue will be adipose. If the remains are only covered by a few inches of soil you may see rodent burrowing or some insect infestation such as coffin flies, beetles, or other ground arthropods, especially if rodent burrows are present.

  44. Hi, this is an awesome website, thank you so much for offering your expertise!
    I’m writing a scene where a female slave is crucified in the courtyard in front of her master’s house in Londinium (AD 152) and the body is left nailed/tied to the cross (as a deterrent) Death takes place late August/Sept – so not cold enough to preserve the body – but not necessarily hot. I can’t change the date of death unfortunately – it happened 2 books ago!
    I really need to know the victim’s level of decomposition:
    a) 4 weeks later
    b) 5 months later

    From what I’ve read on this website it looks like the body would be pretty decomposed by 4 weeks… do you think it be recognisable or too bloated, black, & pecked/devoured by birds and insects?
    Presumably clothing could still intact/recognisable?

    I’m guessing dying upright would have an effect on the blood/lividity – or would we be way past those sort of effects after 4 weeks?

    After 5 months would there be any flesh left at all?

    In reality would the smell be so noxious that it would be too much of a punishment for the householder? I imagine the more the flesh is stripped, the less noxious the smell?

    • I’m so sorry for the late reply. Your message got caught up in my spam. You are correct that a considerable amount of decomposition would have progressed by 4 weeks. In fact, I suspect that the body would have dislodged from the vertical position by the second week and be on the ground. Birds and insects will invade and insects will reduce a large amount of the biomass. After five months it’s conceivable that enough of the flesh would be gone that the odor would be very localized (within a few yards to humans, further for scavengers). Any number of scavengers such as fox, racoons, badger (not sure what species might be present in your scenario), could consume/scatter and re-bury small portions of the remains. In any event I don’t think the remains would be recognizable. You might consider using some kind of device like a piece of jewelry, unusual hair braid, or clothing item that would allow another character to “identify” the remains. Presumably, there wouldn’t be a large population of missing persons from your locale. Hope that helps.

  45. So, i have a body that has been left in a submerged undersea station for nigh on 50 years. It has a regulated temperature of 68 degrees, and moderate humidity. No one has been in or out since this guy died, so aside from what he brought with him, I doubt that there would be much else in there to decompose him. Any idea what an explorer might find after 50 years?

    • There would certainly be bacteria (both in the station and in the body). That will allow decomposition to proceed. After fifty years I suspect that the body would be largely dessicated (dried leather) with some skeletonization. Connective tissue and man made artifacts will likely be in place and recognizable. Obviously I’ve never dealt with that scenario but I think that’s passable.

      • I had a question all typed up and ready to ask, then I re-read this question and realized that the scenario, while not entirely the same, would more than likely be a good substitute for the one I’m writing. I found this blog post while looking up details on cadaver decomposition for a scene (like nearly everyone else here, it seems). I wanted to say thank you for answering my question, even though you didn’t know you were answering it at the time. :) While I’m not writing a crime novel, this is certainly a good reference! Thank you again for sharing your knowledge!

  46. You seem to know your stuff pretty well! So question: my corpse has been found in a closet approximately 3 to 4 days after her death (fall temps and little heat in that part of the house). What sort of condition would the body be in and what sort of details would my investigator look for that might point to a time of death (if there are any)?

    • Assuming the closet has no windows or HVAC vents in contact with the victim it would be believable that she is in the early stages of bloat with some skin darkening/discoloration. This may not be obvious at the scene if she is fully clothed. Lividity will be fixed to her position. Your investigator could look for any number of clues which may “indicate” a time of death (but not be fully relied upon in isolation) including the victim’s digital traffic (e-mails, social media, phone calls, etc. assuming she has daily activity), unopened/undelivered mail or newspapers, Interruptions in routine (work, classes, appointments, etc.). Looking at these factors in totality may enhance or support any physical findings of time since death. On the body your investigator may search for insect activity (although if the house is closed up it may take a day or two for adult flies to find a pathway in). Hope that helps.

  47. I have a supernatural thriller in mind with an entity that uses DNA from previous victims and alters it slightly. When the police try to trace down the culprit, they invariably find dead bodies but that isn’t the main thread of my plot. What I’m trying out find out here is, if the DNA samples are only slightly changed with an infrequent inhuman fifth nucleobase replacing one of the usual four (guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine), would that be noticed the moment the lab rats look at the results? I’m hoping that it wont and once discovered it would add more problems for the police then just having their suspects turn up dead. I also have yet to decide what that fifth nucleobase should be.

  48. Hello there! I am looking for a description on the following situation:

    Male 14 y/o body was found near a canal of very dry brush land in the San Diego area. He had gone missing between 8/24 and 8/25 and on Sunday, 9/22, an irrigation worker discovered a “body part” and then the rest of the body close by. Cause of death was a shotgun wound to the head. It was said that the the body was “badly decomposed.” Assuming the death occurred immediately after his disappearance, and that it stayed outside in the dirt/brush with days reaching highs well into triple-digits, I’d like to know what the condition of the body would have been. We’re talking skeleton, right??

  49. My narrative takes place in 1963. An extremely intoxicated man in his sixties is, after a struggle that results in lacerations to his neck, held down in a bath tub until he dies of drowning. What condition would his body be in if he were discovered in the tub two weeks later? Am I correct in assuming that forensic science would have been less likely to identify the death as murder as it would be today? Thanks so much for your help.

    • You have a lot of room to set the scene in this one. If the room gets pretty warm (summer time/windows) then the skin would show quite a bit of sloughing. The lacerations may still be quite visible in two weeks depending on temperature. Other things that the detective may consider is whether the victim is clothed, position of body, whether there are any signs of struggle like a torn shower curtain or shampoo bottle under the body, etc. Use your imagination when describing the scene and consider how the bad guy will leave the scene looking.

      • Thanks so much for your response, which confirms that my description of the body and scene make sense. And thanks too for providing writers with this invaluable service!

  50. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this blog! So much useful information, it has many things I’ve wanted to know but have always been afraid to google! I was trying to find general information about how body decomposition differs in water (specifically salt water in the open ocean, but any information is useful) as opposed to decomposition on land. Assuming the body stays submerged for the entire decay process, does the appearance of discoloration, etc, look the same?

    • Bodies in water are generally more pale than bodies decomposing in open air. Bodies in water typically show a lot more sloughing and what some detectives refer to as “washer-woman” skin. Basically the epidermal layer separates from the dermal layer of skin (kind of like taking off a glove). Salt water will enhance buoyancy though and unless the body is weighted down or caught up in debris it is unlikely that it would stay submerged the entire time. Hope that helps.

  51. If you have two victims that die at the same time but in different enviroments, why are their bodys decomposing different? is it because the enviroments or what?

    • Exactly, environmental conditions are one of the primary drivers of decomposition or preservation. Bad analogy but think of it like food preservation. Ground beef left in the hot sun will spoil much more quickly that the same sample in the freezer.

  52. A former employee of ours recently died at his home. When he did not respond to our emails and his phone was disconnected we went to check on him and found him. His feet were propped up on a box and he was sitting at his computer. His right hand had slid off the mouse and his head was back and his eyes and mouth were open. His left arm was at his side. It was cool outside and the AC was on his house. He was very very white and cold, but there was absolutely no smell. He was not bloated or stiff, but he did have some “mottling” on his legs which I assumed was blood pooling like I’ve learned it does. The ME said there was no way to know when he died, but I thought based on some of this information they’d have some idea. He had donated his body to science, but it was refused due to the length of time he’d been dead. This is all confusing. They claim they can’t say when he died, but he was dead too long to use for science. Based on this information, do you have any idea when he may have died?

  53. More thanks, kudos, and hosannas to you! I had asked you once before about a body being in the water a couple of days and I thank you again for your response! Can I ask for a little more detail? Basically, just let me know if all these statements would be right:
    So the body was dumped late Friday night/early Saturday into large freshwater lake. (weather has been mild, season is fall: chilly at night, warm in the day). She wasn’t weighted well and so floated to the surface by Sunday morning (correct?).
    Her nose and eyes are mostly gone, lips ragged, from nibbling crawfish and fish.
    Her face and neck look red, like a sunburn, but the rest of her body is incredibly pale.
    She isn’t bloated yet.
    As the police are pulling her out of the water, her skin begins to slip off her arms.
    At autopsy, the ME was able to make out 10-pt. bruising around the neck (along with broken hyoid bone) to determine a COD as manual strangulation.

    I just want to make sure I’m accurate! Thank you SO much again and again.

  54. Hi there – great blog btw – loads of useful information. In my book one of my characters is involved in a fight which unfortunately leads to his demise. I’ve got two questions if possible: Would an elbow flung at full speed from a large man hitting the temple of a smaller man, causing him to recoil backwards, smashing his head on the upright of a chair back as he falls be enough to kill him instantly (broken neck or some sort of hemorrhage)? Question 2 – if he died instantly and wasn’t found for 2 days what sort of state would the body be in? It would be on the floor of a house with a standard temperature inside the house of about 20 degrees Celsius. It is early springtime outside. Thanks!

    • “Instantly” is not something easily determined from such a scenario but it could certainly kill him. As far as his condition it depends on the environment and temperature. With an indoor setting if it’s relatively cool the body will still be in pretty good shape and recognizable. The eyes will show signs of drying as will areas around the mouth. At that point the body will be out of rigor as well. Good luck!

  55. Hello, my name is Alex, I am from Guam and currently majoring as a forensic lab technician. I am very interested in recontructing the crime scene. I am very analytical and enjoyed your passage on the stages of decomposition. I do have a question though, after it has reached it’s skeletal stage, how do we determine the estimate date of death through the bones? Considering temperatures and other sources of weather conditions. Thank you-Alex

    • Very difficult to do and extremely subjective. Some have tried to estimate age based on weathering and bleaching but I’m not convinced it’s accurate as environmental contaminants can affect the process. Other means of aging like botany or entomology may be better suited.

  56. Amazing site! Thanks for the succinct detail, easily accessible and easily understandable.

  57. A body is found inside a house. The body is lying a few feet from a fireplace that had been active. The body is found ten hours after death. Assuming the temperature inside the house was 80 degrees; what condition should I expect to find the body in? Would rigor mortis have already happened? Would there be any smell?

    • After ten hours the body will look pretty normal, even with the fire going. Rigor will have set in and livor mortis (blood settling) should be visible on the body at the interface with the floor. If the person is naked they will lose body heat more quickly but there won’t be drastic physical changes to appearance after only ten hours. As for the smell, there may be a faint odor of putrefaction, especially as the body is moved, but it will be faint at best.

  58. I’m writing a story about the death of a boy in 12th century England (late Spring – cool, but not freezing), so time of death needs to be determined based on physical observation. I want someone to find the body based on noticing birds circling in the sky then seeing the body. (The body has been moved from where the boy was killed – he’s found on the bank of a river outside a walled city).

    My first question is, when do birds start scavenging dead bodies? I assume the body must start to smell before the birds can find him, but my research indicates that some birds have a highly developed sense of smell. Is it possible for birds to begin scavenging around 12 hours after death?

    Would land animals find the body before birds? I want body identification to be easy, so little decomposition or animal scavenging.

    Thank you for all the information in this post! Very interesting and informative.

    • Birds are amazingly adept at finding bodies. Some researchers have been using turkey vultures to try and find clandestine graves. I’ve seen birds arrive within a few hours. Larger scavengers can find a body within a day or sooner but they may not feed on the body right away. They may cache it until the enzymes break down the tissue. During this period birds can scavenge. Birds typically “poke” or tear small sections of skin at a time so identification should be readily done even after a couple of days.

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