What happens to your body after you die, in 13 steps

There are many fascinating stages in the decomposition of the body.Marianne Ayala/Insider

  • How the body breaks down after death is a gruesome but fascinating process.

  • This process has taught scientists how to track down killers, near-death experiences, and how to cheat death.

  • Here’s what happens to your body after you die, in 13 steps.

There’s no fighting it; each of us will die sooner or later. What happens next is a fascinating, if frightening, natural process.

Without preservation techniques like embalming or mummification, your body slowly begins to decay the moment your heart stops beating.

Here’s how the full and gruesome process unfolds.

Within seconds of death, your brain activity spikes, then stops

illustration of a brain with left and right electric bolts

Brain activity increases then stops soon after death.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Scientists who have recorded the brain waves of dying patients have found that brain activity increases moments after the body collapses.

This could provide an explanation for why people with near-death experiences remember their life flashing before their eyes.

Body temperature drops

illustration of a thermometer next to an infrared map of a body cooling down

Body temperature begins to drop.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Body temperature is controlled by the brain. When this organ stops functioning, the body temperature will begin to drop until it reaches room temperature.

How quickly this happens depends on many factors such as outside temperature, clothing on the body and body fat content. But the benchmark is that the body loses 1 to 2°F per hour.

This stage, called the algor mortis, is the first of the earliest postmortem changes well known to forensic experts who use it to determine the time of death.

Within minutes, the body’s cells begin to break down

illustrated diagram showing a cell swelling and dying

The cells break down.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Cells need oxygen to survive. Without the blood pumping through the body carrying away carbon dioxide, the inside of the cell becomes very acidic.

This causes the compartments within the cells to break down, releasing toxic chemicals that were previously contained. These eat the cell from the inside out. This process is called autolysis.

If it’s very cold, autolysis can stop, which can protect organs from life-threatening damage.

This is why people can be revived 40 minutes or more after drowning in cold water, or why cooling the body during surgery or after a heart attack can be lifesaving.

Every muscle in your body relaxes, so you can poop or pee

illustration of feces and urine

Marianne Ayala/Insider

Within moments of death, the muscles of the body relax, including the sphincters which prevent what is inside the body from flowing out.

This means that while it may be concerning for families who witness their deathbeds, it is completely natural for some bodies to poop or pee.

A health care professional may ask the family to leave the room when this happens so they can clean up the body.

Within hours, the blood is pulled down, resulting in spots on the skin

close-up circle illustration showing red patchy skin

Spots on the skin appear shortly after death.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Since the heart no longer pumps blood around the body, it begins to be pulled down by gravity.

As the blood pools, patches appear on the skin within 30 minutes of death. About two to four hours after death, these patches coalesce, creating large dark purplish areas towards the lower body and lightening of the skin elsewhere. This may be less noticeable on darker skin.

This process is called livor mortis.

Enter the penalty mortis

illustration of arm muscles

The body stiffens with rigor mortis.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Shortly after death, the body is limp and flexible. But as the body breaks down, chemicals like lactic acid — the stuff that causes exercise cramps — and calcium build up in the muscles. This binds the muscle cells together and causes the muscles to stiffen, locking them in place.

This process begins in the hands within three to four hours of death and spreads elsewhere within 12 hours.

Within 36 hours, muscle cells usually begin to break down and the body sags again.

Nails appear to be growing because the skin is shrinking

illustration of a wrinkled hand with long nails

Nails appear longer as the skin tightens.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Hair and nails may appear to grow after death, but this is a myth.

What is actually happening is that the skin becomes drier and more brittle shortly after death. As it shrinks, it makes nails and hair look longer.

You smell terrible

illustration of putrescine and cadaverine chemical structures, surrounded by green fumes

Putrescine and cadaverine give the body a bad smell.Marianne Ayala/Insider

The body begins to break down shortly after death, but the physical signs of decomposition appear only later.

At that point, the body produces chemicals called putrescine and cadaverine, both of which smell bad.

Microbes accelerate decomposition

illustration of internal organs surrounded by bacteria

Microbes can escape their niches as the body breaks down.Marianne Ayala/Insider

The chemicals released by cells during autolysis send the naturally occurring microbes in your body into a feeding frenzy. The body is usually good at keeping microbes in place, whether it’s in the skin, intestines, or anywhere else that’s open to the air.

But when the body is dead, bacteria, fungi and other microbes escape their prisons and begin to grow.

The microbes give your skin a greenish hue

illustration of bacteria

The microbes give the skin a greenish hue.Marianne Ayala/Insider

This gives the skin a greenish hue, starting on the belly about 18 hours after death.

Some parts of the body also begin to swell as the microbes release gases and fluids that build up in the body.

Hair starts falling out

illustration of hair falling out of a corpse

Hair starts falling out.Marianne Ayala/Insider

After swelling, the skin starts to become a little more relaxed.

Black spots appear on the surface, and the hair begins to fall out. This begins to occur within 24-48 hours of death.

The bugs come to finish the job

illustration of worms

Worms and other insects feast on the leftover tissue.Marianne Ayala/Insider

Body odor is very attractive to insects such as midges and fresh flies, which come to lay their eggs in the remains if left in the open air.

When the worms hatch, they munch on any remaining tissue, scavenging the bones. Hair and cartilage can survive this stage of the putrefaction process.

In the end all that will be left is a bunch of bones

illustration of a skull

Eventually, most bodies will become skeletonized.Marianne Ayala/Insider

In many cases, the body will continue to decompose until all that is left are the bones. This stage is called skeletonization.

Not all bodies become skeletonized. Depending on the conditions, typically in very cold or very hot conditions, some may mummify partially or completely, meaning that the skin and perhaps some internal tissue will be preserved.

Every body is different and each will decompose a little differently. But in the end, sooner or later everyone will have to face death.

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