A Fantastic Voyage
Adam wants to know about “phases of decomp, assuming [a] cool/cold outdoor setting.”
I love a good voyage of discovery through the stages of decomposition. So much so, in fact, that some of my co-workers have dubbed me Ms. Frizzle. (Okay, it’s really because of the hair.) Sadly, this particular question is one I can only answer in a roundabout way. I need a side gig at the body farm to become a better resource for you, dear readers.
I deal with cold decomp all the time. The cooler at work generally runs between 44 and 36℉. Any warmer is just no good, and too close to freezing has negative outcomes for embalming. The cold only slows decay; it cannot stop it. I feel this should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever forgotten leftovers in the back of a fridge, but I once had to tell a funeral director that the corpse who had sat at the ME for three months was in fact green and slimy. Refrigeration: marvel of modern technology. Not magic.
Let’s start with general decomp. The first visible sign is green discoloration in the abdomen (lower right quadrant, to be specific). The discoloration spreads through the entire abdomen and into the chest, neck, and thighs. Discoloration also spreads through the venous system—aka roadmapping. In the absence of specific pathogens like tissue gas, roadmapping is usually a dark red or purple.
Next comes everyone’s favorite, desquamation. As the skin breaks down, fluid-filled blisters form. Gravity plays a part in this, so I see them usually along the back of a corpse, but it depends on what position they were left in. The blisters break with the slightest pressure. In the case of a traumatic wound, skin slip usually sets in around the torn skin as well. (Or around the edges of an autopsy incision—sewing up a sloughing cranial incision is my least favorite thing.)
Desquamation is usually the time the prominent decomp odor sets in. As a professional writer, I should be able to describe this smell, but mostly it’s just bad. Putrid, sour, sometimes sickly-sweet, gassy. Bad. Also pervasive. A smell we’re meant to notice and avoid. If we have a decomp in the cooler at work, you’ll know it every time the door opens. I may grow nose-blind to a degree over the course of an embalming, but as soon as I leave the prep room I’ll rediscover the smell lingering in my clothes.
Humidity has a serious effect on decomp, especially the…sloughing…phase. The dryer the climate, the faster the dead get leathery. The skin on extremities—fingers, toes, facial features—shrinks and darkens as it dries. Torn skin also desiccates. I’ve mentioned previously that corpses rarely have the peacefully closed eyes and mouths we so often see in media. Once the eyelids and lips dehydrate, they become very difficult to close. Eyeballs also deflate.
Rigor mortis, livor mortis, abdominal discoloration, and early dehydration/desquamation mark the “fresh” stage of corpsehood, or approximately the first six days after death. Next comes bloat. Gas buildup starts in the stomach and intestines and spreads through other organs and into tissues. The person may or may not have purged when they died, but the gas will force more fluids out of various bodily orifices as pressure builds. This usually happens over the second and third week.
After the gases have built and forced their way out, active decay sets in. This is when tissues break down and skeletonization begins. According to my embalming textbook, the final dry skeleton stage of decomposition sets in between fifty-one and sixty-four days after death. I very rarely deal with skeletal remains.
The most immediate wild card I can think of with an outdoor setting is scavengers. A whole host of critters will be interested in your corpse, and depending on the size and variety of them in the area, they could make quick work of you. That’s the part of this question I can’t be much help with. I’ve dealt with ants and maggots, but don’t have any colorful anecdotes about larger dinner guests. I feel it’s a safe bet that if a dead body is left outdoors, it will be missing bits fairly quickly.
So many thrilling voyages await you in the underworld! Book yours today at thedeadlands.com, or reach out to @stillsostrange on Twitter. Psychopomps are standing by!
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.