How Long Does It Take for Rigor Mortis To Set In? Answered

While it can be so difficult to deal with the loss of a loved one, you may have some questions about it. It’s not morbid to wonder about the death process, and this article will help answer some of your questions. 

Rigor mortis takes about two hours to begin. The process starts in the face and works its way through the rest of the body. Rigor mortis completes about six to eight hours after death when it takes full effect. However, many factors can affect the time it takes. 

Let’s talk more about the process of rigor mortis and the factors that can affect it. 

How Does the Rigor Mortis Process Work?

Rigor mortis is the muscle stiffening process after a person dies. Once the heart stops beating, and the body stops producing oxygen, the stiffening process begins. When the body is at rest, muscles produce calcium ions. These ions interact with myosin and cause muscle contraction. 

Muscle contraction is a normal part of the human body. Rigor mortis happens because the contractions can’t release. Muscles use adenosine triphosphate to pump out the calcium ions and release the muscle contractions. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t produce adenosine triphosphate after death. So, the muscles remain contracted. 

Adenosine triphosphate is a vital energy source. Our body needs it to provide energy properly and keep our muscles from stiffening. There are certain diseases linked to low levels of adenosine triphosphate, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and even fibromyalgia. So, this is only something that can happen after death. 

The rigor mortis process begins about 2 hours after death. It starts in the face and moves to the rest of the body over the next few hours. Once this happens, the body will become very stiff and difficult to move. So, it can be difficult to work with bodies after rigor mortis sets in, but not impossible. 

How Do Morticians Work Around Rigor Mortis?

Knowing how quickly rigor mortis sets in, you may be wondering how morticians can work with dead bodies. Muscle stiffness can make the mortician’s job seem almost impossible, as they must embalm and dress the body before the funeral service. So, let’s talk about how that works with rigor mortis. 

The answer isn’t as complicated as you may think. Morticians who need to move the body and rearrange facial features do this by carefully massaging the muscles to get the body to move. This helps with stiffness and allows them to move the body without damaging it. 

Morticians use this process to dress the body in the clothing picked out by the family. They also massage the muscles to move them and pose the body for the funeral service. There are some limitations that the mortician can experience with rigor mortis. 

For example, morticians may have a difficult time putting shoes on the deceased depending on the type of shoe and rigor mortis. The main issue with morticians putting on shoes is that the foot is no longer as manipulatable as it was when we were alive. 

So, the mortician can only do so much to get the shoe to fit. In fact, many families choose to simply leave the shoes in the casket with the deceased rather than fighting to put them on. It is also why half-couch caskets are quite popular. When used, half-couch caskets cover the legs and feet of the deceased, making it unnecessary to apply shoes. 

woman with red roses and coffin at funeral

Once the embalming and setting processes are complete, the mortician shouldn’t need to move the body. So, rigor mortis is only an issue for the embalming and dressing process. However, it does help keep the body from moving too much when they transport it to the funeral home and eventually the gravesite. So, rigor mortis can help at some points. 

If you want to learn more about the process of putting a body in a casket, we have an article for you here. This article goes into more detail about the process of putting the body in a casket and how morticians get it done despite rigor mortis. 

What Factors Can Affect Rigor Mortis?

There are a few different factors that can affect how quickly or slowly rigor mortis sets in. This can make it more challenging to rely on rigor mortis to determine the time of death because so many things can affect it. So, let’s break them down. 


One major factor in determining the timing of rigor mortis is fat. Fat provides insulation for muscles which can slow down the rigor mortis process. This means that people with less fat to insulate their muscles after death will experience rigor mortis faster. So, it can make determining the time of death tricky because it varies so much. 


Ago is another important factor when it comes to rigor mortis. Young children and the elderly tend to experience rigor mortis faster because they tend to have lower muscle mass. This means that the calcium ions can spread faster, creating rigor mortis before it would normally happen. 

Outside Temperature

Colder outside temperatures can slow down rigor mortis, while hot temperatures can speed it up. This is because bacteria spreads faster in warmer temperatures. So, trying to determine the time of death for a body in colder temperatures can be almost impossible because it delays the process so much. 

Physical Activity

This is less about the regular physical activity of the deceased. Rather it is about the physical activity of the person as they died. For those who die during physical activities, the rigor mortis process can begin much faster because the muscles are already short on adenosine triphosphate. So, there is less of a waiting period for them to break down and stop working. 

Final Thoughts

While it generally takes about two hours for rigor mortis to begin to set in, this can vary depending on many different factors. Overall, rigor mortis is a great way to determine the time of death, but it can become unreliable when certain factors arise. 

Rigor mortis can call into question just how morticians can embalm, dress, and position dead bodies, but thankfully it is relatively easy to work with once the morticians massage the muscles.

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Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

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