In the end, we all die. Depending on how we die will dictate what happens to our bodies afterwards. In any case, it’s not pretty… but studying the decomposition of bodies provides valuable data which can be used to extract information from human remains. These might include things like time of death or the circumstances of the death.
Where might one go to research what happens to our bodies after we die? A body farm. A body farm is a research facility where decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings. Body farm research can be used in law enforcement and forensic science, and forensic anthropology. One such farm is the Freeman Ranch Body Farm, part of Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas.
The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) serves as a resource for forensic anthropology students, researchers, as well as state and national law enforcement agencies. At 26 acres, it’s the largest facility of its kind in the world. Since opening in 2008, over 150 donor individuals have been studied, and another 200 living pre-registered donors are on the list.
What kind of things can be learned on the farm? If you’ve got the stomach for it, read on.
Here’s what happens to your body after you die:
Within seconds, brain activity surges, then it stops. You are dead.
…Assuming your body is exposed to the elements and not embalmed or buried in a coffin 6 feet underground…
Your body temperature drops about 1.6 F per hour until you reach room temperature. After a few minutes, your cells begin dying due to the lack of oxygen. They then start to break down and leak, beginning the process of putrefaction. After several hours, calcium builds up in the muscles, causing them to tense. This “rigor mortis” lasts about 1.5 days. Your body bloats, as gasses from the decomposition build up.
Eventually, your muscles relax, causing you to release any remaining feces or urine. Your skin shrinks as it dries out, giving the illusion that your hair and nails are still growing (this is a myth – they are certainly not growing after you are dead). Gravity pulls your blood down, making light skin look pale with reddish splotches.
As the days continue to pass, you turn green in spots because enzymes in your organs start digesting themselves, usually with the help of bacteria. You smell awful because your body releases chemicals like putrescine and cadaverine, among others. Your body is actively decaying as organs and tissue liquefy and disintegrate.
Weeks may pass, and bugs feast on your soft tissues. Maggots can digest 60% of a body within a week. You’re now straight out of The Walking Dead as your body (what’s left of it) turns purple as bacteria continue to digest your body. Your hair also falls out (if it didn’t already fall out when you were alive).
If your body is left at around 50 F, it will take about 4 months for all soft tissues to decompose… and then all that will remain is your skeleton. Depending on a variety of conditions (animal predation, temperature, acidity of soil, exposure to air, etc.), your skeleton could be preserved for many years or almost completely decay in as little as 1 year.
Warning: Graphic Images Below
The following images are from the Freeman Ranch Body Farm and serve to illustrate the stages of decomposition of the human body.
The early stages of decomposition, demonstrating bloating due to gasses being built up within the body.
Decomposition fluids are released as the body “bursts”.
Nearly all flesh is consumed, leaving remnants of skin, hair, nails, and bone.
This body has been exposed to the elements for several weeks and is almost completely decomposed.
Getting to know the Necrobiome
An article on the website The Scientist explains the value of knowing what happens to the body after death, and especially, the necrobiome:
“Fans of forensic science TV shows are familiar with the challenge of determining how long a recently discovered body has been dead. Temperature, humidity, and rainfall all affect the rate of decomposition and hence skew estimates of the postmortem interval. Clues to the time of death have also come from the order of arrival of a wide variety of organisms—mostly insects and fungi—that transform a corpse into a thriving ecosystem. Now, armed with next-generation sequencing techniques, scientists are hoping to pin down the postmortem interval with greater certainty by characterizing fluctuations in the necrobiome—the complete roll call of bacteria that flourish in every nook and cranny of human remains.”
Watch this video to learn more about the going’s on at a body farm:
And as for the smell of death – arguably the worst smell one can experience – the folks over at Compound Interest explain the chemistry behind it (click the image to see a larger, more legible version):