Decomposition frequently comes up in questions during our office tours and my presentations about the Coroner’s Biz. It also not infrequently “comes up” in my office. Today was such a day. We had a death over the weekend, a body found fairly far along on the continuum of decomposition.
Classically there are thought to be 4 stages. First the body undergoes autolysis, in which body chemicals and enzymes begin to work on dissolving the body, or at least parts of it. At the cellular level certain chemical “pumps” fail, that also contributes to that autolysis. The next phase is bloating and putrefaction. Our internal bacteria (helpful symbiots while we are alive) are responsible for this stage. They travel throughout the body, using our blood vessels (and other “channels”) as roadways. During this phase, gases are generated and released characteristic of the odor of dead bodies (an odor like no other). In addition, these gases are responsible for the body “swelling” that occurs. Next come outside “carnivores”, most particularly the province of the lowly, and very useful, maggot. Maggots arrive early, are incredibly prolific, and very efficient in accomplishing their task, no matter how primal our “fear” of them. The last phase is a dry “rot” breakdown of the last vestiges of the body.
It’s a natural process and as I said quite efficient, but unpleasant (actually a word a bit too understated for the experience) to be around. It is however something we in the Coroner’s Biz have to deal with (at times while wearing respirators). This profession isn’t for every one, but even at it most “revolting” still fascinating and rewarding.