How long does a corpse last

Anatomy of death

Five sure signs of death

When the old, sick grandmother takes one last deep breath in her bed at home, sighs again vigorously and then relaxes her facial expressions, the color disappears from her face, the heart stops beating - then everyone around her knows: you fell asleep gently. Dead. And yet a doctor has to come and determine death.

According to the guideline for carrying out the medical death survey, the following are certain signs of death: death spots, rigor mortis, putrefaction as well as injuries or destruction that are incompatible with life.

In a hospital, the zero line in the electrocardiogram (EKG) is also an option. That is the line with the drawn-out beep tone, as you know it from hospital TV series.

Dead spots appear first

The first signs of death that become visible are the death spots, called Livores in technical terms. Under normal circumstances, they occur as early as 20 to 30 minutes after the irreversible cardiovascular arrest: Because the heart is no longer pumping, the blood can no longer circulate through the body.

It sinks to the deeper parts of the body with the force of gravity. The blue-violet spots then form there - except in the places where the body rests.

So if the grandmother named as an example lies on her back, the dead spots will form on the back, but not on the shoulder blades and buttocks. Around nine hours after death, the spots are largest and particularly intense in color.

Rigor mortis last up to three days

Rigor mortis sets in about one to two hours after death: first on the eyelids, then on the jaw. After about six to eight hours, the entire body is deadly. The reason for this rigidity is the biochemistry of the muscle fibers: muscles can contract on their own. In order to relax, however, a "plasticizer" called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short, is necessary.

After death, these plasticizer molecules break down so that the muscle fibers remain hard. After two to three days, the rigidity begins to dissolve again: the muscle cells and all the other cells in the body are now dissolving. This is ensured by enzymes from the dead cells. This process is known as autolysis - self-dissolution.

Putrefaction and putrefaction are natural

There are two other processes involved in the decomposition of a dead person: putrefaction and putrefaction. The fundamental difference between the two: putrefaction takes place in the absence of oxygen, while putrefaction can only take place with oxygen.

During putrefaction, bacteria ensure that organic body substances are broken down. Among other things, the gases hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane are produced. Because there are so many bacteria in the human intestine and the tissue there is also quite moist and soft, putrefaction begins here.

The first visible sign of putrefaction is that the skin on the right lower abdomen is turning yellow-green. Then the stomach inflates, soft tissues become puffy, and putrefactive blisters can develop on the skin. Decay is less unsavory: only water, carbon dioxide and urea are produced here.

Grave rest time is sufficient for complete decomposition

Even if the idea of ​​these decomposition processes may seem disgusting or cruel, these processes are natural. "In the case of a coffin burial, nobody needs to be afraid that someone will be brought underground whose body is no longer recognizable," says Rolf Lichtner, General Secretary of the Federal Association of German Undertakers.

"The undertaker keeps the corpse at below eight degrees Celsius until burial in order to delay the autolysis, the putrefaction and the putrefaction." Bacteria can hardly multiply at such cool temperatures and chemical reactions are also very sluggish.

When the deceased is underground, a mattress, straw, sawdust or peat in the coffin soaks up the resulting liquids. "In addition, the wood of the coffin lets oxygen from the floor into the coffin, so that the body can rot well instead of just rotting," says Lichtner.

Decomposition takes different times depending on how much oxygen and water there is in the earth: Usually all tissue is decomposed after twelve years, the bones take a little longer.

After the usual rest period of up to 30 years there is usually nothing left of the corpse, except perhaps the skull and thigh bones.

"In cemeteries with heavy clay soils, however, it can happen that you find wax corpses after the rest period has expired," said the Secretary General of the Federal Association of German Undertakers.

Wax corpses arise mainly in loam and clay soils: They are hardly permeable to air, so that no oxygen penetrates the corpse and a wax-like layer is created from the body fat. This prevents the body from completely decomposing.

Only wooden coffins are allowed

The coffin also has an influence on the decomposition of the corpse: In Germany only wooden coffins are allowed because they rot themselves. In a zinc coffin, on the other hand, rotten corpses could be preserved: The putrefactive liquid does not run off and the gases cannot escape from the coffin.

When the proteins break down, so much ammonia is produced that the bacteria die and the putrefaction is stopped. The putrefaction will also be stopped because the coffin is airtight, i.e. there is no oxygen.

"The corpse then really gets a zombie-like appearance," says Wolfgang Huckenbeck from the Düsseldorf University Hospital. The forensic doctor saw the first and so far only time such a lazy corpse preservation when he was supposed to recover the remains from a zinc coffin that had been buried 15 years earlier so that they could be burned and reburied. In a wooden coffin, as it is prescribed in this country, such a thing does not happen, the experts assure.

No worms disturb the last rest

The General Secretary of the Federal Association of German Undertakers, Rolf Lichtner, also clears up the myth that worms from the ground eat their way through the coffin and then feast on the corpse: "Worms only live to a depth of about 30 centimeters, however, the digging depth is usually 1.6 to 2 meters. "

Especially since worms mainly feed on plants and soil and not on human remains. So the deceased can rest in peace.