What happens in a coffin

Putrefaction and Putrefaction: Stages of Dismantling

Dying is inseparable from life. During our lifetime, metabolic processes take place continuously in our body that renew our cells. With the help of breathing and eating, they provide the necessary energy to get our bodies going. But what happens after death? The first degradation processes are of different nature and sometimes run at the same time. Here you can find out what different stages the corpse goes through after death.

What happens right after death?

When the heart stops, the blood can no longer circulate in the body. Gravity causes blood to pool on the underside of the body. A reddish-purple color is visible. These are the so-called dead spots. However, these are not located on the parts of the body where the corpse lies. Its weight displaces the blood and ensures that no blood can flow into the vessels.

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The body temperature also drops continuously after death. However, the temperature change is strongly dependent on the climatic conditions. In colder surroundings, the body cools down much faster.

Rigor mortis set in a few hours after death. It starts in the eyelids and muscles of mastication and slowly spreads down the body. It is fully developed after about six hours. Due to chemical reactions, rigor mortis is a process that cannot be prevented. Even if the muscle is prevented from solidifying by external influence, the rigidity occurs accordingly later. Rigor mortis is an important indicator of determining death. However, since their characteristics and duration can be influenced just as strongly by external circumstances, one must look very carefully when determining the time of death. The rigidity begins to dissolve again 24 to 48 hours after death has occurred. The decomposition processes of autolysis ensure that the muscles relax.


The actual process of dismantling the corpses begins with autolysis. It already sets in shortly after death, but only becomes visible after a certain period of time. The body's own enzymes are active beyond death and continue to catalyze chemical reactions. As a result, cells are split up and cell structures dissolved. Soft tissue, hollow organs and parts of the connective tissue liquefy.

The typical sweetish corpse smell develops through the processes taking place. The effect of autolysis is rather small. Degradation processes of the same quality could also be carried out by microorganisms.

Autolysis only lasts a few days until all substances in the body that can still be metabolized have been broken down by enzyme activity. The exact duration depends heavily on external circumstances such as the temperature.


Our body is its own small ecosystem that maintains symbioses with many different microorganisms. Many of them live on our skin and in body orifices, others even live inside our body. The best example of this are the intestinal bacteria. Your job is to help us digest. After death and with the onset of autolysis, there is no longer an immune system that can prevent the bacteria from causing damage to our cells. The microorganisms begin to use the human cell components for their metabolism. This creates gases. The putrefaction begins.

Putrefaction processes always take place in the absence of oxygen. That is why they have their origin inside the body. Putrefaction gases such as hydrogen sulfide cause the inside of the body to turn green and visible through the skin. From nitrogen compounds corpse gases arise. These are not poisonous, as is often assumed. However, they can irritate the airways and cause allergy-like reactions.

The muscles, the brain and organs without cavities naturally show hardly any bacterial activity. They are only gradually affected by the putrefaction as bacteria from the intestinal and respiratory tract regions reach other areas of the body via the blood vessels. As a result of the preceding autolysis, the membranes are usually so permeable that nothing stands in the way of the microorganisms from spreading. The reaction spectrum of putrefaction is significantly higher than with autolysis and the degradation processes progress more rapidly.

Mushrooms also have an easy job now. The activity of microorganisms and fungi changes the environment in the body and becomes basic. The soft tissue is increasingly liquefied and the corpse is drained. Liquids build up all over the body, which can cause putrefactive blisters under the skin.

The putrefaction process can last up to nine months. After the corpse has been dehydrated, the oxygen-rich processes increase and the actual putrefaction increases.

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The putrefaction is also caused by bacteria and fungi. However, they need oxygen for their metabolic processes. With its help, organic compounds in the tissue are broken down and oxidized. The end products are mainly water, carbon dioxide, urea and phosphate. Since, in contrast to putrefaction, no gases are formed, there are no unpleasant odors.

The putrefaction can sometimes start at the same time as the putrefaction. It then begins first on the outer parts of the body and later moves into the interior of the body as soon as the appropriate conditions have been created through putrefaction processes. The putrefaction in the presence of oxygen goes beyond the duration of the putrefaction and continues even if there are no more putrefactive processes.

External circumstances also have a major influence on the course and duration of the decomposition process at this stage.

Corpse fauna

Not only microbial organisms, but also animals that specialize in the ingestion of dead tissue are involved in the decomposition process. This so-called corpse fauna differs depending on climatic conditions and regional circumstances. Various insects contribute a large part to the putrefaction. Fly larvae in particular are significantly involved in the decomposition process.

The decomposition of the corpse by different animals follows a strict hierarchy. Based on this sequence, it can be forensically determined in which stage of decomposition the deceased body is.

Decomposition disorders

Numerous factors can affect the process of putrefaction. High temperatures promote decomposition. However, if the corpse is also dehydrated, the likelihood of mummification increases. However, this is less common in our latitudes.

On the other hand, decomposition disorders that arise due to insufficient oxygen supply are more problematic. Since the microorganisms that are responsible for the putrefaction can only do their work in the presence of oxygen, the processes are slowed down or even come to a complete standstill under these circumstances. As a result, corpses still intact can be found many years after the time of death. This phenomenon is mainly known in connection with water corpses. If the body is below the surface of the water, there is not enough oxygen available for the bacteria to decompose. As a result, the body's own fats form a waxy layer that becomes visible as a white substance on the surface. In this context one speaks of guilty bodies.

If there are no ideal conditions for decomposition in cemeteries, it can also happen that wax corpses are found in the graves after the rest period has expired. In particular, loamy and clayey soils do not provide the right conditions to guarantee a natural decomposition process. Sometimes the water table is too high, which causes the decomposition to stagnate.

Clothing, coffin material and medical substances that are ingested as part of antibiotic or chemotherapy can also have an influence on the process of decomposition. For this reason, special care has recently been taken to use biodegradable materials for burials. The medical history of the deceased should also be discussed when planning the funeral. This is the only way to guarantee natural decomposition before the end of the rest period.