4 Terrifying Things Your Body Does When It Decomposes (II)

autopsy table

Let’s jump headfirst into the second part of this series: Four Terrifying Things Your Body Does When It Decomposes. If you’re new to this series, take a step back to the previous entry and go no further until you’re well and truly prepared. These final two festering features of decomposition are certainly not for the faint-hearted; for the bravest among you, read on.

Decomposition, as it were, is a term that sounds just science-y enough — thankfully, it dispells any mental conjuring of moldering cadavers — and we’re left thinking about the decaying compost heap in our back gardens. Is there really anything so frightening about that?

Right? Wrong.


3. Black and blue and dead all over (or lividity).

The characteristic bluish appearance of a corpse is the unfortunate tell-tale sign we face when we’re sure that they’ve pretty much stopped ticking. Interring the dead into morgues is part-and-parcel of the medical profession; and all physicians we’ve spoken to convey that there’s stark difference in the appearance of skin immediately after an individual passes away.

It’s pretty obvious why this change occurs: the mighty heart that pushes around vast quantities of the red stuff (thereby perfusing all the body’s tissues and organs with life-giving oxygen) has stopped beating. The circulatory system is, well, no longer circulating. And without this pump, the blood can do nothing to resist the flow of gravity — which is where lividity enters the scene.

The ever-stickier, coagulating red blood cells starts falling to the lowest point in the body (e.g. if you die lying down, it’ll pool on the back side of your body). What’s more is that depending on the levels of haemoglobin the blood, the lack of circulation causes skin to assume varying intenstities of colour called a “marbling” effect.

We won’t lie: it looks a bit like the elementary school project where you make wrapping paper by dipping a big sheet into a bucket of oil paint and turpentine.


4. Loosening up (skin slippage).

We’ve decided to share (possibly) the most macabre one for last: skin slippage. If you’re unlucky enough to happen upon somebody who hasn’t really been thought of in three weeks, you’ll see that their hair, skin and nails loosen and start to slip off.

It really is, philosophically speaking, one of the more finite stages of external tissue decay (that lovely interface we have between ourselves and the outside world) where the skin bursts open and exposes all the muscle and fat lying hidden beneath it.

One final fact: skin slippage makes it possible to cut carefully around the wrist to remove the skin around the hand. Carefully inserting one’s own hand into this “glove” can create the fingerprints police and forensic investigators need if the deceased in question is unidentified.


Your Turn: If you’ve gone back and read the previous article, which of the four “most terrifying things” shocks you the most? Are you a know-it-all who thinks you can show us one better? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.




  • Laurie says:

    When my husband died he wasn’t found for two days and he looked like he was just napping. He had his oxegen in his nose. I don’t know if that was the difference.

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  • Fred says:

    Heh. As an embalmer, this stuff isn’t so scary once you’ve seen in a few hundred times! XD

  • Anti Wrinkle RX says:

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  • Patty raab says:

    I got just enough information for the question I asked. Since I’m elderly, I have some life experiences to have prepared me for what you may have considered shocking. The surprise info was that caskets are no longer secured tightly (I gathered, to allow the gases to partially escape.) That being said…why doesn’t it reek of odor at cemetaries, especially when entombed instead of burried? Can I expect an answer to my question?

  • Rio says:

    The idea that a serial killer can use a skin glove can be used to plant false fingerprints. However point to be noticed is that this happens after after 21 days. So will the fingerprints start decomposing? Can there be any kind of identification that the print is made postmortem? What if a person cuts off the skin earlier.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Rio, thanks for your comment. Fingerprints are residue left behind by friction ridges on the skin. The exact time of their disappearance on a surface or medium depends on a number of things: environmental circumstances; contact with other substances; and the clarity of the initial impression. If you’re talking about the “skin glove” or friction ridges themselves, they would (very generally) decompose at the same rate as a human cadaver. There is no way of telling that the print is made post-mortem using standard fingerprinting techniques, but new technology is being developed to extract DNA and other useful pieces of information from the prints themselves. This is a bit out of the scope of this article, but we’d encourage you to investigate this yourself. We’re not sure about your last point, so if you can clarify this, we can address your final question.

      • Joy says:

        I think she means what if you strip off the “glove” from a living person… great website, btw — I just now stumbled across while researching details for murder mystery I’m writing. (er – ATTEMPTING to write — beginner/unknown writer here.)

  • Jo says:

    My friend had a peaceful end and even looked happy and years younger when he died. When his brother went to view the body at the undertakers they informed him that he was badly discoloured and strongly advised against viewing him. Why was this and what happened between his angelic looking death and this “discolouration”? It sounds very suspicious to me.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Jo, we’re very sorry to hear about your friend. Discolouration may refer to the state of livor mortis, which involves the settling of blood in the body after the heart ceases pumping. This can cause a sort of marbling of the skin, which, to be fair, might be a bit startling to see (to the untrained eye). This state of decomposition can be reached relatively quickly after death — it settles in as soon as 20-30 minutes after death, and reaches its peak within 6-12 hours. We hope this adequately addresses your concerns.

      • L says:

        Skin marbling has been explained very well in the article. I’d like to know why some dead looks younger. And is it true that someone who look peaceful in death had (generally) a peaceful death?

  • Mint says:

    The pugilistic attitude in burnt bodies. I saw pictures in forensic medicine class in second year (I’m in medical school). Now, in final year….. *faints*

  • Joy says:

    Wannabe writer here again. Scenario: Year is about 1870. NYC, fine, clear summer night. Bad guy clobbers woman on head, kills her. He drops her body (clothed) into hole right beside foundation of big fancy mansion being built, and spreads dirt over. Construction crew comes back next day and fills in rest of the hole, finish the house. And there she remains until circa 2060, when freak accident exposes her (old tree uprooted in storm topples over, massive root-ball rips up the ground – she’s tangled in the rootball). Is anything left besides a skeleton? hair? rotted clothes? Great website!

  • T. Speer says:

    After reading this…I can’t wait to die.

  • Denise K. says:

    My sister recently died. She was sitting on the couch, watching TV. There was A/C running. She had a caregiver who left Friday so she died after the woman left. On Monday the caretaker discovered she was dead. My nephew told me ” she wasn’t too bad.” I am driven to know what condition she would have been in. She was cremated. I want to be buried swaddled in a white sheet and buried. No casket, no embalming no. I want a “natural” cemetery. What did my nephew, her son see?

  • C. Collins says:

    Neither our body nor our soul is truly ours. It belongs to God alone. And He, in His infinite wisdom, decreed our earthly body back to earth where it was created from (along with our “friendly”, and also mortal bacteria). Even prophets were buried. Cremation is a premature taste of Hell.

  • Nivlac says:

    Wen I’m dead o want to come back as a sea gull so that I can shit on people who shit on me wen I was a live

  • Nivlac says:

    Is being cremated cheaper than being buried and if you are buried do you have to pay ground rent when you’re dead

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