A woman is sitting in her apartment watching TV when she smells something that puts her off her macaroni and cheese dinner. She can’t quite work out what the smell is, but the first two things that come to mind are rotten eggs and rotten cabbage.
She’s tired, so she goes to bed, but when she wakes up the next morning, that awful smell is even stronger. The stink is so bad that she gags. It feels as if somewhere in the house, rats are decaying in one big heap.
Then she notices that the smell seems to be coming from the apartment next door. That’s enough to make her call the cops, even though the young guy who lives next door looks healthy and nowhere near his expiration date.
When the cops enter that apartment, they too gag when they see the bloated corpse in front of them.
Let’s now go back in time.
The guy that died was named Jack. His neighbor was right about him regarding her assumption he was fit and healthy. His downfall was the fact he worked out too much. Jack had injured himself and had to take very strong pain medications following an ambitious attempt to clean and jerk much more than his own bodyweight.
This was Jack’s downfall because those medications brought on severe and chronic constipation. Jack put up with it as best he could, but over time his large bowel extended because of such a large build-up of feces. This led to compression in his chest cavity and that resulted in him dying from sudden cardiac arrest. We know this because a pathologist performed an autopsy on him.
We’ll get back to the autopsy soon, but first let’s have a look at Jack’s last gasp of air in this world.
When Jack’s heart failed him, what happened next was his brain didn’t receive the blood flow it needed to function. He passed out, and after a few minutes something called “global cerebral ischemia” happened.
That is the term used for when the entire brain isn’t getting any blood flow. Jack then experienced something called brain death. He checked out and there was no coming back. He jerked around a bit, but that was just the last bit of brain activity performing its last dance.
What happened next is Jack’s body began the first phase of its post-death performance. This is known as “primary flaccidity” and it basically means that all his muscles relaxed. At this point, his jaw dropped open by itself.
Around the same time that coffee he’d drunk in the morning bloomed at the front of his pants in the form of urine. As for that backed-up feces he’d never been able to eject, that left his sphincter and made a big mess on the couch where he was sitting in his underwear.
Jack then started to turn a shade of white, which is something in the death business they call “pallor mortis.” It’s the process of the blood draining from the veins. This usually happens at around the 20-minute mark.
Next up for Jack was the stage known as “algor mortis”, which is when the body starts to cool down. The human body is quite the toasty environment and usually has a temperature reading of anywhere from 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C). When someone is dead that temperature will drop and level out at the temperature of the surroundings. Jack had left his window open, so it was chilly in his room.
This actually slowed down his composition, but it also opened the door to insects who saw Jack as an ideal host for their eggs.
What happens around time is blood starts to pool where it can. With Jack’s heart not pumping blood around his body, it is gravity that rules blood flow. In Jack’s case, he was sitting so the blood started to pool at the lower half of his body.
This process, called “livor mortis”, starts after only about 20 minutes but those purple patches on the body usually start to form at around the two-hour mark. They become more pronounced as time goes on.
Jack sat like this for a while and then after about four hours his muscles started to get very rigid and he started to look pretty damn scary. This is the part of the process called “rigor mortis”. It’s basically due to biochemical changes in the body. Jack’s mouth was all twisted.
He looked like someone who’d died after seeing a ghost, but it’s actually a myth that people die with expressions of fear on their faces. The weird, sometimes pained expression, is just the body going through the rigor mortis process. That process starts with the eyelids, hence those scary open eyes you see on dead people, and moves all the way down the body until it reaches the toes.
Jack’s body was extremely stiff at the 12-hour mark, at which point it would have been hard to move his limbs around. He remained looking like a statue for a good two days, which is quite normal. After that, his body started decaying some more and the stiffness gave way to another relaxation stage known as, “secondary flaccidity.”
It’s at this stage that the skin starts to shrink a bit, and if you’d have seen Jack at this point you might have thought his hair and nails were growing. That wasn’t happening, it was just his skin receding.
Jack’s been dead for over two days now.
He’s pooped his pants. He’s relaxed and he’s stiffened, and he’s relaxed again. Now it’s time for the massacre, what some people call the cannibalization of the body.
It depends on the temperature, but in general, people will start to show the signs of decomposition after around three days. People start decomposing pretty much as soon as they die, but it usually takes a few days for that decomposition to start making the dead look very dead.
You see, Jack’s body used to be maintained when it was a living organism, but when Jack died his immune no longer worked and all the bacteria in his gut and elsewhere were free to explore his body. You could say that Jack started eating himself.
Proteins started decomposing, and all that bacteria started to digest his body. This stage of decomposition just made Jack turn a shade of green at the beginning, but it soon started to make him look pretty ugly and smell really bad.
After about five days
Jack started to bloat and blisters formed at various points on his body. What was happening is he was fermenting, and that’s because the feeding bacteria was creating gases in the body. It’s generally what happens when you ferment stuff, including the human body. It’s why a dead body sometimes emits a foul stench through its mouth. That gas has got to go somewhere.
If you want to know why dead bodies smell so bad you need to know what gases are emitted from the corpse. One called “cadaverine” is renowned for having the malodor of rotten fish. “Putrescine” also has notes of dead fish. “Skatole” smells like poo, “hydrogen sulfide” smells like rotten eggs, “dimethyl disulfide” smells like acrid garlic mixed with dead fish, and “methanethiol” has the distinct smell of rotten cabbage. Altogether this medley of gases makes dead people not the best folks to have as housemates.
After around 12 days
Parts of Jack’s body were turning black and those terrible smells were worsening. This is about the time that his neighbor first noticed the stench. What the cops found at the scene was what’s known as an “unattended death”. These can be viewed as suspicious deaths, so the first thing law enforcement wanted to know is if natural causes were to blame. Only around five percent of deaths in the U.S. require an autopsy, and Jack was one of those.
The medical examiner received Jack’s body along with notes written by people who’d seen him in his apartment. The notes said he was sitting on the couch and that there was nothing at the scene that suggested foul play or suicide. The pathologist also had information about Jack’s medical history, so he saw that Jack had been prescribed strong painkillers. This was a big deal of course.
The examiner then got to work, externally going over the body from head-to-toe to look for anything that could suggest the cause of death. There was nothing remarkable to see there, so the examiner opened Jack up after cutting from his sternum to his pubic bone.
Jack was still a little bloated, so the examiner had to take a step back when some gas escaped from the body. Once he’d cut through the skin, fat, and muscles, the examiner opened Jack’s rib cage. He actually used a pair of shears to do this, a tool not unlike ordinary garden shears.
Now that he had the keys to the kingdom, he could start removing Jack’s organs.
The first removal saw Jack’s heart, lungs, throat, and tongue go. Then he took out the stomach, the liver, and the pancreas, followed by the bladder, bowels, and reproductive organs. The tricky bit can be removing the tongue without causing a scar that will upset grieving family and friends, but every medical examiner knows how to get to the tongue without making a visible scar someone will later see.
So, now Jack’s hardly himself at all as the examiner looks at, weighs, and slices open various organs. He’s pretty much looking for anything out of the ordinary, and in Jack’s case, it was pretty obvious what had happened. Once the cause of death was determined, Jack’s organs were put back into his body and he was sewn up.
The reconstruction job doesn’t mean everything goes perfectly back into place, far from it, but an examiner will put the organs close to where they came from. In some cases the organs may be kept for research, or they might be cremated if the family gives their consent. All we can say is that Jack got his back.
The examiner signed the death certificate and completed the forms so Jack could be buried.
It must be said that because Jack had spent quite a lot of time decomposing on the couch, he looked pretty rough – even for a corpse. Now we come to the funeral home where Jack will spend a bit of time before his big day.
The first thing that happened there was the spa treatment.
This consisted of washing the body and making sure all his limbs were lying in the right place. Jack didn’t need much limb massaging because the rigor mortis stage had already passed. His eyelids were then closed with glue and his jaw was wired shut. After a little bit more tinkering with his mouth, he was made to like as though he was resting in peace.
Next up was embalmment, which consisted of removing Jack’s blood and pumping him full of chemicals to preserve his body. After that, Jack’s abdomen was drained, as was his chest cavity, and once that happened the embalming chemicals were pumped in.
The last thing was to make Jack look presentable to those who’d see him in his open casket, so makeup was used to give him more of a glow than he had when he went into the funeral home. His hair was styled, his nasal hair cropped, and his nails were cut. He was then dressed and placed in a coffin, ready for the big send-off.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and Jack was in the ground.
The answer is a lot of waiting. If Jack had just been left to rot above ground in the open air things would have been different. There he would have been feasted on by insects and within a matter of weeks, he would have very likely become a liquified mess.
It’s a different story 6-feet under, embalmed, and housed in a wooden box. How a person will decompose depends on a lot of factors. Those factors include what kind of coffin someone is sealed in, the environment in which the coffin is placed, and also on the body of the person that has died.
After just a few weeks underground, Jack no longer had any kind of greenish complexion and instead, he had a dark brown tint to his skin.
That nice suit he wore to his own funeral was hanging off him after a few months and once a year had passed there wasn’t much of it left. This doesn’t mean the suit was badly made, but that the suit was being degraded by the fluids coming out of Jack.
Ten years have now passed.
Jack is now on his way to becoming human soup, which isn’t a very good look for him.
Things could have been very different. Some bodies have been exhumed after many years and they didn’t look too different from when they were buried.
You just don’t know what you are going to get when you open a coffin that has been dug up. For instance, if the body is buried in very dry conditions it could mummify, which is probably a nice outcome if you’re an exhumer by trade.
So, that’s the story of unlucky Jack, but it’s also partly the story of most people on this planet. We all have the same ticket for the same destination, although none of us know when our bus is due.