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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Life of a Corpse: Postmortem Changes

     Climate and terrain have a great impact on the speed with which a body decomposes. If a body is deposited in a wooded area in upstate New York in the dead of winter, it's going to decompose much more slowly than one dumped in Florida woods in the summer. One reason is that flies and bacteria, the two main factors in turning a corpse into a skeleton, aren't active outdoors in cold weather. Research shows that bodies placed outside in the winter don't bloat as much as those in the summer, and many of them turn what we refer to as "Halloween colors"--orange and black.

     Although not every case holds true, bodies usually go through several predictable stages: fresh, bloated, and dry. At this last stage, the decomposition process has ceased, maggots have finished feeding, and, unless rodents and larger carnivores eat it, the corpse will change very little even over a period of years. If there is any flesh left covering the skeleton, it will harden so that it will someday resemble leather or parchment paper.

     During the early stages of decomposition, internal gases bloat the abdomen, the skin stretches like plastic wrap, and the veins fill with bacteria, turning them green and black so they look like thin highways or the graining on marble--hence the term "marbling."

     Sometimes, in as little time as two weeks, the face, chin, throat, groin, and abdomen become the first areas to skeletonize. The less meaty and, to maggots, less desirable areas, such as the arms and legs, often decompose last. When you lift a body to look under it, those areas of the body in contact with the ground often resemble Swiss cheese or wormwood; this is where maggots have left the body and burrowed into the ground. Contrary to common belief, hair and nails don't keep growing after death; it's the shrinkage of the tissue that gives this illusion. Skin and hair are dead cells; they were dead before the individual died.

Rober Mann, Ph.D. and Miryam Ehrlich Williamson, Forensic Detective, 2006 

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