Mortis: What Happens to the Body After Death?

Mortis: What happens to the body after death?Once the heart stops beating, whether due to homicide or natural causes, the body enters the first stage of death. Blood drains from the capillaries to the larger veins in the parts of the body, closest to the ground. This process is called livor mortis (embalmers call it “postmortem stain”). The overall skin, once pink and full of color due to oxygen-laden blood, is now pallid, except for deep purplish-red bands where the corpse touches the ground. Think gravity.

Livor Mortis

At the livor mortis stage, the blood is “unfixed.” Meaning, a killer could throw off police by posing the victim, causing different lividity patterns. Livor mortis peaks at eight to twelve hours after death. This is when the lividity patterns are the most pronounced.

After a few hours, the pooled blood no longer moves. The livor mortis is now “fixed.” Meaning, no matter how the body is posed after livor mortis fixes, the lividity patterns will show how the corpse was originally positioned. “After livor mortis fixes” are the keywords. These purplish-red patterns aid investigators in determining possible scenarios. Under the right circumstances, it can also be the killer’s undoing. The way to test if livor mortis is fixed is to press on the areas where the blood pooled. If the skin “blanches” — meaning, turns white — the livor mortis remains unfixed. Death investigators can use that window to help approximate TOD (Time of Death).

When the heart stops beating, all muscles relax, including the sphincter muscles, which is why investigators often find remnants of defecation and urination, as disgusting as that sounds.

Rigor Mortis

Mortis: What happens to the body after death?The process of the muscles releasing is called “primary flaccidity”. After which, they begin to stiffen — known as rigor mortis; pronounced Rye-gor (cop shows get that wrong too. Just sayin’) — which occurs within two to six hours after death due to the depletion of the muscle’s energy containers (ATP-ADP) and coagulation of muscle proteins. While alive, when adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is used it becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP). When both ATP and ADP drain from the deceased rigor mortis sets in, starting in the eyelids, neck, and jaw. Over the next four to six hours, rigor mortis spreads throughout the body, affecting the joints of the extremities first, then the extremities themselves, then traveling inward, stiffening every muscle, including organs like the heart.

The onset of rigor mortis depends on numerous factors, including whether the victim did anything strenuous before death, like running for their lives. In all fairness, they’d have to overexert for this to affect the rate of rigor mortis. A sinister game where the killer tracks and hunts his human prey through wooden terrain, hiking up mountainsides, paddling across waterways and crawling inside deserted animal caves, over the course of several days? That’ll do it. Age, sex, build, physical condition, as well as outside factors also play a role in how fast rigor mortis occurs. Much of it depends on how fast the body cools — a process called algor mortis.

Algor Mortis

I’ve touched on algor mortis before. See Blood, Bodies, and Bugs for more info. When no muscular control exists within the body the skin succumbs to gravity, forming new shapes, accentuating prominent bones. The body then begins to cool (algor mortis).

Conditions that affect algor mortis…

  • Environmental temperature. For example, if a body is found outside in the cold weather, the corpse will cool faster than if it was found inside a heated room.
  • The size of the victim will affect the cooling rate. For example, a petite woman cools faster than an obese man.
  • The victim’s clothes can either speed up or slow down the cooling process. A heavily-clad corpse cools slower than a scantily-clad or nude victim.
  • Ventilation is a biggie. A room that’s well-ventilated could actually speed up the rate of cooling by increasing the rate of evaporation.
  • Humidity plays a role, too. A body dumped in a humid location — for example, a Louisiana killing field — will cool slower than a corpse in a hot, dry climate.
  • Insulation. Meaning, a body wrapped in plastic, or any other material or substance, including excess body fat, cools slower than a corpse left in the open.
  • Surface temperature also affects the cooling rate. A body laid on a hot surface will cool at a slower rate than one found on an icy sidewalk, for example.

After the corpse has been stiff for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the muscles relax and secondary laxity — also called “secondary flaccidity” — occurs in the same order, usually. First the eyelids, neck, and jaw. The length of time rigor mortis lasts also depends on multiple factors, especially ambient temperature (the air around the corpse). Infants and child corpses might not exhibit perceptible rigor mortis due to their smaller muscle mass.

The best way to asses a body’s core temperature is with a tympanic membrane (eardrum), liver, or rectal thermometer. A rectal thermometer might not be the way to go, because it’s not only difficult to use but could potentially cause postmortem injury. Could you use this as a way to show another mistake in the long line of errors by a rookie coroner? Absolutely.Mortis: Livor, Algor, Rigor

Putrefaction

I’ve also delved into putrefaction before. See What Happens at the Body Farm?

Around the second or third day after death, a greenish skin discoloration starts on the right lower abdomen. The discoloration spreads over the entire abdomen, then to the chest and upper thighs. It’s at this point when the wretched stench arrives. Sulphur-containing intestinal gas and a breakdown of red blood cells produce the discoloration and the putrid aroma. Bacteria, normally residing in the body to aid our immune system, contributes to putrefaction — commonly known as decomposition — after death.

Not only does this bacteria give the body an unmistakable odor, but it bloats the corpse, turns the skin green to purple to black and causes the tongue and eyes to protrude from their orifices and often, can thrust the intestines through vaginal and rectal openings. The natural gas also causes rank bloodstained fluid to seep out the nose, mouth, and other orifices. If someone dies from a bacterial infection, marked putrefaction could occur as quickly as nine to twelve hours after death. Need a quicker time-frame for your story? Mention that the victim suffered with a bacterial infection for days/weeks before death. Or use a drug addict for a victim (see Garry Rodgers’ comment for why).

By day seven, much of the body is discolored with giant blood-tinged blisters. The skin loosens, the top layer slipping off the bone in sheets — called skin slippage. The internal organs and fatty tissue decay contributes to the rankness. By week two, the abdomen, scrotum, breasts, and tongue swell and the eyes bulge from the sockets. This is when the bloody fluid seeps from the eyes, nose, and mouth, as mentioned above.

After three to four weeks, the hair, nails, and teeth loosen and swollen internal organs begin to rupture. They eventually liquefy. However, organs decompose at different rates. In fact, a resistant uterus or prostate could still be in tact after twelve months, believe it or not. Need your coroner to easily identify a corpse’s sex? Use this tidbit in your next story. If there’s nothing left but bones, refer to my post about  skeletal differences.

Unless the corpse is refrigerated, kept below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, body cells will die. This process is called necrosis, which we’ll dive into at another time.


Now get off the computer and have some fun. For those of you who plan to watch the Superbowl, enjoy the game. Go Pats!

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

30 Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff Sue. Maybe a little TMI, lol. 🙂 <3

  2. I don’t write about murders and mysteries but this is so interesting. I fantastic post.

  3. Another extremely informative post, Sue. Thanks for all your research. 🙂 — Suzanne

  4. Fantastic information Sue and an invaluable piece for writers of crime.

  5. God, this is gross! Glad I’m not a crime writer. I write scary stories for kids, but I think this might be a little too graphic for bedtime reading! 😉

  6. Excellent post. Neve know when this will come in handy. 🙂

  7. Great post, a little hard on the stomach, but educational in the gory details. Well Done. I’m going to keep this valuable information.

  8. Thanks for the details, Sue. I reposted to my FB page. A friend’s sister was recently found dead in her bedroom days after she died. Although TOD was officially when she was discovered and pronounced, the day she actually died was either the day before her birthday or the day she turned sixty. The family wants to know what the ME used to determine actual date of death, and this will help them understand. Should the obituary say she was 59 or sixty? Inquiring minds want to know!
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    • Wow, Paul. I’m so sorry for your loss. At either age, she was way too young. Thanks for sharing to FB. Are you sure this post will help ease their pain? If it does, that’s wonderful. Tough question. If it were me, I’d let her stay 59 forever.

  9. Packed with great info as usual, Sue. And, of course, an EWWW factor too… along with some shuddering tossed in for good measure 🙂 Glad I read this one in the daylight hours!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Welcome Teri Polen with Sarah and #WritingTechinquesMy Profile

  10. Great recap on mortis types, Sue. Something for crime writers to keep in mind is that temperature and body mass are the key elements that affect mortis changes but there’s one other sneaky little contributor and that’s foreign chemicals in the system, especially cocaine.

    I had a death case where a large lady (250+) was brought into ER in cardiac arrest from a cocaine OD and she died. This was a Friday night and I examined her in the ward to make sure there was no sign of foul play then sent her down to the morgue. I went to autopsy her Monday morning and when I rolled her from the cooler and opened the shroud…she was f’n green! I don’t mean a light green or a dark green but a green like the Incredible Hulk.

    What happens in cocaine od’s is that the mechanism of death is usually from an extremely elevated body temperature because the cocaine molecule attaches to neurotransmitters and cause the body’s thermostat to stick wide open. They literally cook to death and that’s why most coke deaths are associated with significant antemortem muscle and brain action like excited delirium.

    So what happened over a couple days in the cooler was her body temperature was slow to cool because of her mass and an estimated 110+ core temp at death. Despite the outer temperature in the morgue refrigeration, she was still insulated by her clothing and the shroud wrap. Putrefaction set in so fast that her paylor mortis (color change) skipped the normal pink-blue-gray-white phases and went directly to green without collecting $200.

    Hopefully this gory stuff makes other crime writers’ Superbowl Sunday and I suspect there’s going to be a few more green faces come Monday morning 🙂

    • OMG, Garry. You met the Hulk? Bet she made you jump. 🙂

      Excellent addition to this post. I always forget to include drugs!!! Didn’t I do that last time, too? I read your comment via email, on the way to my Dad-in-law’s yesterday, and I can picture your face as you slid open the drawer. Had to read it to Bob too; I was laughing so hard. For some reason, he didn’t find it as funny as I did. 😉 Anyway, I kept trying to respond, but typing on country back roads with the signal going in and out…well, let’s just say I gave up.

      What a comeback from the Patriots! Did you watch the Superbowl?

  11. Ergh, I’m not one for this stuff but it is helpful for future writing. I write horror so it may be needed. Bookmarked.

  12. I’m your speculative author friend, so here’s what I got.– I remember the Mortis triplets, in fact I used to date two of them. They were kind of a cold bunch, and I never dated Algor, because she had this strange odor.

  13. This really is both interesting and helpful, Sue. Knowing those details, I think, makes it easier to make crime fiction more believable. Yes, you know you’re a crime writer when rigor mortis is of great interest… 😉

    • Hahahaha. So true, Margot! As I was writing this post I wondered how many people would find it too graphic, but I knew my kindred spirits (crime writers) would appreciate it. 😉

  14. I have a fine imagination and it’s late, so I am sharing it first and reading it in daylight Sue. 🙂 Another fantastic post!
    Joycelin Leahy recently posted…Void – PoemMy Profile

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