How Long Does It Take for a Body To Decompose? Answered

When a person dies, their organs lose all function, and eventually, their body begins to decompose. Have you, however, wondered how long this process of decomposition takes?

It takes one month to several years for a body to decompose. Body decomposition occurs in multiple stages, but the set of decay starts about one month after death. The decomposition process’s overall rate depends on the body’s internal and external environmental conditions.

The rest of this article will explain sections of this topic in greater detail, including the time needed for each stage of decomposition and the rate at which it occurs under different conditions. Keep reading!

Rate of Body Decomposition Under Different Conditions

A body can be in many different conditions affecting its decomposition process. Let’s discuss the various commonly occurring factors that can affect the decomposition of a dead body.

Rate of Decomposition of a Body in Water

Decomposition in water depends on the pH and current of the water, among other features. In deep seawater, skeletonization can occur in as little as 3 to 4 days. Also, decomposition in the presence of water leads to adipocere formation, a yellowish, wax-like substance that forms by the hydrolysis of fat in the body. This substance hardens over time and becomes white, sealing certain body features in place.

Rate of Decomposition of a Body in a Casket/Coffin

In modern times, this has become the preferred method of laying the dead to rest. In the Western world, bodies often get embalmed before they go into the casket, causing them to decompose in about 80 to 100 years.

This slow decomposition is a process called mummification. Mummification is a chemical process that occurs under arid conditions characterized by preserving body features and shrinkage. 

Rate of Decomposition of a Body After Embalming

The rate of Decomposition after embalming depends on the chemicals used and the method of embalming. Some methods might preserve the body for a few weeks, while others slow decomposition down by a few centuries.

Rate of Decomposition of a Body Openly Covered by Clothing

In such cases, decomposition depends on the nature of the clothing material. Under a cotton blanket, it can stop at the decay stage after 31 days. Under a tarp or similar clothing, it might take several months to reach skeletonization. 

You can discover the rate of decomposition under a lot more conditions by checking out body farms. Body farms are large swathes of land with dead bodies; used to study and understand decomposition better.

What Is Decomposition?

Decomposition is the process by which organic matter or compounds are broken down and decay to give small organic or inorganic compounds. The rate at which decomposition takes place differs for each living organism depending on particular factors of physical condition and environmental exposures.

Factors Affecting the Rate of Decomposition

The main factors affecting the rate of decomposition of a body are:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Presence of animals and Microorganisms
  • Individual variations
  • Air exposure
  • The type of clothing or coverings
  • The extent of injuries.

The Stages of Body Decomposition

However, the best way to explain the stages of body decomposition is through the processes that happen under neutral conditions. Neutral conditions mean that the body is at room temperature, with regular humidity and complete exposure to air on the surface of neutral soil. 

The stages of decomposition are:

  • Somatic death
  • Rigor mortis
  • Livor and algor mortis
  • Autolysis
  • Putrefaction
  • Bloating
  • Decay
  • Skeletonization.

Somatic death

These are the immediate changes that occur after death, including the total loss of function in the brain, heart, and lungs and primary relaxation of the muscles. Somatic death takes place in the first few minutes after death. 

Rigor Mortis

The Latin phrase “rigor mortis” roughly translates to ‘stiffness of death’ and refers to the temporary stiffening of muscles 1 to 2 hours after death. An accumulation of lactic acid in muscle tissue causes rigor mortis and begins in the body’s upper regions. It gradually progresses downwards and can last for 36 hours. 

Livor Mortis & Algor Mortis

Livor mortis is the pooling of blood to the lowest regions; due to gravity, the process can take up to 8 hours. On the other hand, algor mortis refers to the dead body’s sharp drop in temperature. Both livor mortis and algor mortis are a natural part of body decomposition. 


Autolysis is also known as self-digestion. It is the process by which cellular enzymes become acidic and consume their host cells. This process starts about 4 minutes after death, while certain bacteria also begin to develop in the body’s tracts. 


Putrefaction involves the destruction of the tissue by microbes, majorly due to the action of internal bacteria. This process takes place 24 to 72 hours after death. Unlike autolysis, this stage is identifiable by intense body discoloration. The abdominal region becomes green, while bluish-green coloration appears on the rest of the body.


Bloating is a direct result of putrefaction. As putrefaction occurs, gasses like ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and methane emerge in large quantities. These gasses are partly responsible for the strange smells in funeral homes and cause the body to swell extensively.

In addition to the smell, a foul-smelling liquid emerges from openings in the body. Most of the skin, along with hair and nails, slips off at this stage. Bloating takes place 24 to 36 hours after death. Maggots and other insects become increasingly active around the body towards the end of the 36 hours.


Most of the body mass disappears during active decay. At this point, the body receives maximum exposure to air and insect activity. Organs liquefy, leaving materials like hair, nails, cartilage, and the skeleton. Decay takes place in 1 month.


Skeletonization is the longest stage of decomposition. Complete skeletonization takes place between one month and several years. At the end of this stage, there is no trace of the body. It’s the most environmentally-dependent stage of decomposition. After a body is entirely skeletonized, you’d observe notable changes in the plants grown in the surrounding soil.


The processes involved in decomposition are the same for most dead bodies in an intact state. However, the rate depends on a variety of factors and conditions. Just like the cause of death differs for each individual, so is the length of time required for decomposition.

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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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