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Title: Putrefaction  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Decomposition, Coffin birth, Antiseptic, Maceration (bone), Ted Bundy
Collection: Alchemical Processes, Food Science, Medical Aspects of Death, Necrosis
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Stages of death

Pallor mortis
Algor mortis
Rigor mortis
Livor mortis

Putrefaction is one of seven stages in the

  • Putrefaction: Dr. Dinesh Rao's Forensic Pathology
  • The Rate of Decay in a Corpse

External links

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  3. ^ a b
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  5. ^ a b


See also

In alchemy, putrefaction is the same as fermentation, whereby a substance is allowed to rot or decompose undisturbed. In some cases, the commencement of the process is facilitated with a small sample of the desired material to act as a "seed".

Putrefaction, the eighth alchemical key of Basil Valentine, 1678, Chemical Heritage Foundation

Other uses

The University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Facility is a body farm established in 1981 to study human putrefaction. Several others have been built in other locations since that time.


Certain substances delay putrefaction. Some of them are:

Delayed putrefaction

External Injuries: Antemortem or postmortem injuries can speed putrefaction as injured areas can be invaded by bacteria.

Cause of Death: The cause of death has a direct relationship to putrefaction speed, with bodies that died from acute violence or accident generally putrefying slower than those that died from infectious diseases. Certain poisons, such as potassium cyanide or strychnine may also delay putrefaction, while chronic alcoholism will speed it.

Condition of the Body: Emaciation slows putrefaction due to diminished moisture and fat contents within the body.

Age of Death: Stillborn fetuses and infants putrefy slowly due to their sterility. Generally, younger people putrefy more quickly than older people.


Light Exposure: Light can also contribute indirectly, as flies and insects prefer to lay eggs in areas of the body not exposed to light, such as the crevices formed by the eyelids and nostrils.[3]

Manner of Burial: Speedy burial can slow putrefaction. Bodies within deep graves tend to decompose more slowly due to the diminished influences of changes in temperature. The composition of graves can also be a significant contributing factor, with dense, clay-like soil tending to speed putrefaction while dry and sandy soil slows it.

Moisture and Air Exposure: Putrefaction is ordinarily slowed by the body being submerged in water, due to diminished exposure to air. Air exposure and moisture both can contribute to the introduction and growth of microorganisms, speeding degradation.

Environmental Temperature: Decomposition is sped by high atmospheric or environmental temperature, with putrefaction speed optimized between 21 and 38°C, further sped along by high levels of humidity. This optimal temperature assists in the chemical breakdown of the tissue and promoting microorganism growth. Decomposition nearly stops below 0°C or above 48°C.


Various factors affect the rate of putrefaction.[3][4]

Factors affecting

Rate of putrefaction is maximum in air, water, soil, and earth. First external sign of putrefaction in a body lying in air is usually greenish discoloration of the skin over the region of embalming. The rate increases dramatically in tropical climates.

  • 2–3 days: Discoloration appears on the skin of the abdomen. The abdomen begins to swell due to gas formation.
  • 3–4 days: The discoloration spreads and discolored veins become visible.
  • 5–6 days: The abdomen swells noticeably and the skin blisters.
  • 2 weeks: The abdomen is bloated; internal gas pressure nears maximum capacity.
  • 3 weeks: Tissues have softened. Organs and cavities are bursting. The nails fall off.
  • 4 weeks: Soft tissues begin to liquefy and the face becomes unrecognizable.

Approximate timeline

Generally, the term decomposition encompasses the biochemical processes that occur from the physical death of the person (or animal) until the skeletonisation of the body. Putrefaction is one of seven stages of biochemically subject to putrefaction. In the matter of death by poisoning, the putrefaction of the body is chemically delayed by poisons such as antimony, arsenic, carbolic acid (phenol), nux vomica (plant), strychnine (pesticide), and zinc chloride.

The visual result of gaseous tissue-infiltration is notable bloating of the torso and limbs. The increased, internal pressure of the continually rising volume of gas further stresses, weakens, and separates the tissues constraining the gas. In the course of putrefaction, the skin tissues of the body rupture and release the bacterial gas. As the anaerobic bacteria continue consuming, digesting, and excreting the tissue proteins, the body's decomposition progresses to the stage of skeletonisation. This continued consumption also results in the production of ethanol by the bacteria, which can make it difficult to determine the BAC in autopsies, particularly in bodies recovered from water.[2]

The bacterial digestion of the cell proteins weakens the tissues of the body. As the proteins are continuously broken down to smaller components, the bacteria excrete functional-group amines putrescine and cadaverine, which carry the noxious odor of rotten flesh. Initially, the gases of putrefaction are constrained within the body cavities, but eventually diffuse through the adjacent tissues, and then into the circulatory system. Once in the blood vessels, the putrid gases infiltrate and diffuse to other parts of the body and the limbs.

Putrefaction in human hands after several days underwater in Florida, United States

In anaerobic bacteria of the digestive tract consume, digest, and excrete the cellular proteins of the body.



  • Description 1
  • Approximate timeline 2
  • Factors affecting 3
    • Exogenous 3.1
    • Endogenous 3.2
    • Delayed putrefaction 3.3
  • Research 4
  • Other uses 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


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