Dec 21

When Humans Die: What Happens, Actually?

Skull with Stephen King quote

This seemed an appropriate quote to share in a post centering around facts about death. It’s from Danse Macabre, a very fine (if somewhat outdated) nonfiction book about the horror film and fiction industries.
Original photo credit: BenedictFrancis via photopin cc

One of the nifty things about being a writer, especially a writer of fiction, is that you can indulge nearly any curiosity in the name of research. Since I am a person of peculiarly practical bent, I view that as a plus. Of course, we all have the Google, and most of us probably have dark little secrets in our browser history, but I suspect that more normal people still might pause before indulging certain wonderings. Writers, however, owe it to our audiences to brave the weird side of the internet. We go where others fear to tread. WE DO IT FOR YOU, READERS.

Most recently, for my contribution to the Rise of the Dead zombie anthology (so, legitimate reasons), I needed to know more about the rate of decomposition of human corpses as well as other facts about death and how we treat it societally and why we have the customs we have and so on. Research is not all fun and games, y’all. It’s work. But … for you. Always for you.

Note that I don’t include much metaphysical discussion here, only information about things that are knowable and verifiable or close to it. Also, of course, anyone who’s a bit squeamish about death or related topics should stop reading now. Seriously. Don’t read any further. I’ll probably write about something more pleasant next time. Or you could go back and read some less disturbing posts. This one about the weather was, I thought, particularly nice. Or this one about M&Ms. No? Still here? Okay then. Let us proceed. Caveat emptor and all that.

The big one: how long does a corpse take to decompose?

Answer: it depends. I know. I know. Not an entirely satisfactory answer. But that’s the truth. It depends on things like whether the corpse was in open air, underwater, or buried, and if buried, soil condition, water table, coffin (if any) used, embalming, and other factors. The most rapid decomposition occurs in unembalmed corpses left in open air, outdoors, in warm weather. Bonus speed boosts if the person suffered from bacterial sepsis or open wounds prior to death, both of which introduce destructive bacteria more quickly. Because of the assistance the decomposition process gets from animals and insects, the body can in extreme cases be reduced to skeletal remains in a few days.

At the other end of the spectrum, dead who are preserved long-term, either intentionally, like the Egyptian mummies and political leaders such as Vladimir Lenin, or unintentionally, like bog bodies or those buried in very sandy, arid soil or in extreme cold, decay the most slowly.

In general, though, in the United States, the dead are usually preserved via embalming, for the purpose of temporarily maintaining or restoring a lifelike appearance for the viewing and funeral ceremony. So how long does an embalmed corpse take to decompose? Well … it depends. The skill of the embalmer, the initial condition of the body, the strength of the embalming fluid, the burial container (coffin), whether the person was buried underground or placed in an above-ground vault: all of that matters. As one funeral director on Reddit said, the body could “hold up” (by which I assume he meant look basically as it did at burial) for as little as a week or for as long as months. Complete decomposition could take decades. Sealed coffins or vaults do not prevent decomposition, for reasons I’ll go into next.

What happens during decomposition?

Before I go on, I will just say that if what you have read so far bothers you even a little bit, you should stop reading now. It only gets worse from here. (I am eating banana bread while writing, but I’m not particularly squeamish.) You have been warned. Ahem.

There is more than one type of death, but for our purposes we are talking about clinical death (the cessation of blood circulation and breathing) that is not reversed by medical intervention, which would include brain death (the complete and irreversible loss of brain function). That is, a condition that would be understood by nearly all observers to be death.

So after death, what happens to the human body? Say it with me, people: it depends. At least, the timeline depends. The steps, however, are essentially the same. First, there is the beginning of cellular death. Brain cells are the first to go, usually within three to seven minutes. Other cells are slower to die. Skin cells and bone cells, for example, live for days and can be successfully harvested via the organ donation process up to 24 hours after death.

There are two types of decomposition: what I think of as home-grown, which is a result of enzymes and resident bacteria and happens regardless of whether the corpse is buried or not (although a thorough embalming can slow this process way down), and what I think of as external, or caused by insects and other scavengers. These two types of decomposition, of course, happen simultaneously. Internally, the first thing to go is the pancreas because the enzymes it normally produces cause it to digest itself. Also, the bacteria that live in the intestines and help digest food are still alive in there, only now they recognize the intestines themselves as food and begin eating their way out. Externally, flies are attracted to corpses nearly immediately and lay eggs in and around natural body openings and wounds. The eggs mature to maggots in a day or so and live on the corpse for a few weeks. The first few days of this process (in an exposed, unembalmed body) is called initial decay.

Next, the multiplying bacteria within the body, spread by maggots, release gases that cause the corpse to bloat significantly in a stage called putrefaction. These gases also attract many other insects and predators, causing the activity in and around the corpse to accelerate. (Gives a whole new meaning to the term “moveable feast,” doesn’t it?) Since on the internet, there are pictures of everything, you can of course find pictures of bodies in this state if you wish. However, one of the best examples I found (because of the quality and thoroughness of the photographs) is from a silicone model that was created for the purpose of training law enforcement officers. (If you were considering going into law enforcement, these pictures might just put you right off that little idea.)

Nothing lasts forever, and after several days of putrefaction, the bloated body collapses, a stage called black putrefaction. It is so called because the exposed parts of the body are black in color. The odor at this stage is very strong, and there is still a lot of bacterial and insect activity. (Or, if buried deeply, generally just bacterial activity, which is entirely sufficient to ensure decomposition.)

The next step is called butyric fermentation. If you have ever seen a dead animal that is somewhat flat and beginning to dry out, you witnessed butyric fermentation. Over this period, all the remaining flesh is removed, making the corpse less maggot-friendly. Beetles that feed on the skin and ligaments move in.

The next step is dry decay, where pretty much all that’s left is hair and bones. And yes, there are things that eat hair. Since humans don’t have much hair, this stage doesn’t last long.

Finally, skeletal remains are all that is left. And skeletal remains can take centuries to decompose, depending on, in addition to other factors, the age of the person at death. The skeletons of infants and the elderly decompose more quickly than others because of the softness or porousness of the bones, respectively.

If you would like to see this process for yourself, check out this series of photographs of a decomposing baby pig (used because of the similarities to humans) and accompanying explanation. Side note: the piglets used for this experiment were killed accidentally by being crushed by their mother, the sow. This apparently is a very common way for pigs to die. Anyway, my point is that nobody is killing baby pigs on purpose here. If you would like to see this process underwater, where of course different critters are responsible for some of the decomposition, check out this time lapse video. (Again, this is a pig.) Also, if you want to see how we know how all this works in people, just go ahead and Google “body farms.” I could go into further detail, but I think I’ve given you enough food for thought. Now let’s move on to something really interesting.

Why are we so weird about death?

I tried to find another way to phrase that question, but during my research, I kept coming across the idea that Western culture, and more specifically that of mainstream North America, has a lot of fear and uncertainty around death that does not seem to exist in other cultures, and in fact did not exist in its current form in our culture until we embraced the modern process of embalming. The pain of losing a loved one is, of course, universal, but our discomfort about the idea of death itself … that’s kind of a new thing. The general consensus among people who routinely think about such things is that lack of familiarity has made a somber thought (“We’re all going to die!”) into a scary one. It used to be the responsibility of family members and the community to care for the deceased, but then, beginning during the Civil War, embalming became more accepted, and that responsibility got transferred to the death industry. Also, with medical advances, death began happening more and more in hospitals, and less at home. Death became The Enemy instead of what it really is: the inevitable end that we will all face. I mean … how disturbing is it that most of us simply will not say that someone has died, when that is precisely what has happened? Instead, we use the euphemisms “passed,” “passed away,” or “passed on.” Or, if we’re being flippant, “kicked the bucket,” “pushing up daisies,” and the like.

Every culture has its own way to deal with death and the dead. Mainstream American culture used to be much different from the way it is today. In Victorian times, for instance, while there were many superstitions around the dead and ghosts or spirits and many specific customs related to death and mourning, death was accepted as a part of life. Except in the case of some wealthy persons, the body was prepared for burial by families and in fact was never left alone up to the funeral procession (the origin of “the wake”). Now, in the US, what typically happens when a loved one dies (in the hospital, usually) is that the family does not see the body again until viewing and funeral services, if then. It’s whisked away to the hospital morgue, picked up later by a driver of an unmarked funeral home van, taken to be embalmed, and only when all that is complete and the day of viewing has arrived does the family see their loved one again. It’s as if we want to pretend that death doesn’t exist. And while there are cultural death practices that might seem extremely strange or morbid to many of us (Tibetan sky burial, anyone?), trying as hard as we can to pretend that one of the few universally inescapable truths—well—isn’t … that seems to me to be very strange indeed.

Bonus: Inside The Funeral Industry

Because I didn’t really delve into the inner workings of the funeral industry, you didn’t get to read some extremely interesting stuff. I know. I’m sorry. But I can only fit so much into one post. HOWEVER. If you are curious about such things, there is a fascinating YouTube series called Ask a Mortician by mortician and The Order of the Good Death founder Caitlin Doughty, in which she answers such questions as whether bones have to be ground after cremation (short answer: yes) or whether dead bodies are dangerous (mostly, no, but in a small percentage of cases, such as when the person died from Ebola, yes). It’s really interesting stuff, wrapped in a purposely (I assume) slightly cheesy package. Go watch!

If you’re still here with me, thanks for sticking around. I know this topic is more than a little uncomfortable for many of us. As always, though, I think that the more uncomfortable something is, the more we have to gain from really examining and thinking about it. I would love to hear your thoughts, right down there in the comments section. If you thought this was worth reading, please share it via Facebook or Twitter or the social media of your choice. Unless, you know, you’re too chicken. Also, do consider buying the zombie anthology that was the ostensible reason for all this death research! And Happy Holidays to you! Go have some fruitcake or spin a dreidel or something. See you next post.

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