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Stages of death

Pallor mortis
Algor mortis
Rigor mortis
Livor mortis

Putrefaction is one of seven stages in the decomposition of the body of a dead animal. It can be viewed, in broad terms, as the decomposition of proteins in a process that results in the eventual breakdown of cohesion between tissues and the liquefaction of most organs.


In terms of thermodynamics, all organic tissue is a stored source of chemical energy and when not maintained by the constant biochemical efforts of the living organism it will break down into simpler products. The breakdown of proteins in a decomposing carcass is a spontaneous process but one that is accelerated as the anaerobic microorganisms, already present in the animal's digestive tract when it was alive, consume and digest the proteins that comprise the creature's cells. As cells and their proteins are digested, the tissues of the body are left in a weakened state. Proteins are broken down into smaller components and these are excreted by the bacteria. The excreted components, which include gases and amines such as putrescine and cadaverine, carry the putrid odor associated with a decomposing body. The gases are initially constrained within the body cavities but diffuse through adjacent tissues and into the circulatory system. Once in the blood vessels, the gases can then spread to other parts of the body. The result is visible bloating of the torso and then limbs. The increased internal pressure due to the rising volume of gas also helps to weaken and separate tissues. At some point, some part of the body will rupture, releasing the gas. As the bacteria consumes all available proteins, the process of decomposition progresses into the next stage: skeletonization.

The term decomposition is a generalized expression covering the overall process from the death of the individual until skeletonization of the body. Putrefaction is only one stage of that process. Material that is subject to putrefaction is called putrescible. It is delayed in poisoning due to carbolic acid, ZnCl, As, Antimony and nux vomica (strychnine).

Approximate timeline[edit]

  • 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.

Rate of putrefaction is maximum in air>water>soil/earth. First external sign of putrefaction in a body lying in air is usually greenish discoloration of the skin over the region of caecum which appears in 12-24 hours. And the first internal sign is usually a greenish discoloration on undersurface of liver. The exact rate of putrefaction is dependent upon many factors such as weather, exposure and location. Thus, refrigeration at a morgue or funeral home can retard the process, allowing for burial in three days or so following death without embalming. The rate increases dramatically in tropical climates.

Order of Putrefaction in vitrous organs[edit]

Larynx&trachea>Stomach, intestine> Liver> Lung> Brain, Heart> Kidney> Bladder, Uterus> Skin Muscles, Tendon> Bone.


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.

Other uses[edit]

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

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".[citation needed]

See also[edit]