Glorious Decomposition

Warning- this discussion may not be everyone’s cup of tea!

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the warmer weather! I knew exactly what to discuss this week, when my colleague told me that the recent change had led to the increase in what we know as ‘decomps’. Unfortunately, those that lie somewhere and aren’t found for a period of time will end up this way. Often, the are only discovered by an odour noticed by neighbours or passers by and the odour is heightened in periods of warmer weather. So on that, let’s discuss human decomposition!

The human body starts to break down as soon as the heart stops and life is gone. Almost straight away it becomes an environment for bacteria and microorganisms to thrive. Larger beings like insects also begin to notice the body quite soon after death. The stomach that’s great at breaking down food in life will begin to break itself down and eats away from the inside out.

The first signs are discolourations, purging and rigor mortis. The human body can bloom into all manner of beautiful shades of pinks, purples, reds and greens. Contents of the stomach and other areas build up and the movement of gases force them out the easiest available routes. If the staff on the wards don’t position the deceased correctly, often rigor mortis sets in before we can ensure their mouths and eyes are closed. Rigor mortis can be overcome by flexing the joints and gradually working it out. The first time I was shown that I thought I would surely break the person’s arm but it soon loosened and became flexible once more. These are all signs we see every day at the mortuary.

For our longer term people, I monitor their condition ongoing looking out for the further signs of decay. The signs I see are traces of breakdown of tissues, actual mould or skin slippage and blisters. When this begins to occur we have to consider putting the person into our deep freeze. It’s all about temperature. At room temperature this all happens quickly, 2 degrees in the fridge can slow the process right down and -16 in the freezer can cease the process to some extent until the person is once again defrosted. It is true, however, that you cannot stop decomposition only slow it right down. Even embalming does not prevent it entirely, but does cease full decomposition for some time.

The much later stages we see only when we receive the ‘decomps’. So far I’ve seen anything from the bloated and green to mostly mummified. How a person decomposes greatly depends on the conditions they are in and no one really knows- hence why we really need a body farm to determine this better. All I know is, the warmer the weather the quicker. And the more maggots I’ve seen. After what is known as the ‘bloat’ stage, the body starts to break down from that to skeletal remains.

I’d like to just say a couple of things on this, beginning with the fact this is natural. This is what your body wants to do. Personally I don’t see that as wrong. Nothing can be done to stop it apart from cremation and I’m not sure I favour being blasted with nearly a thousand degrees of flames. I also certainly don’t want to be pumped full of chemicals to pollute the ground I’m buried in. But that’s just me, you may feel very differently and I’d be interested to hear from you!

Speaking of my own wishes once I’m dead, I think I will write a post about that soon! Don’t forget that my Death Cafe is happening next Wednesday (16th May) and you should come along if you are able to! Any questions on decomposition, or anything else at all please get in touch.

Thank you for reading as always,

MG x

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