If you have been watching Ripley’s Believe It or Not, you probably have seen an episode where they featured bodies that have long been dead but looked as if they only died yesterday. The bodies seemed to have been preserved, mummified in a way that has boggled many. And people think that they living, or rather dead, miracles. And people say so because the bodies that haven’t decayed even after decades of being dead belonged to people who were considered kind and martyrs. But is this possible? How long does it take for a body to decompose?
Decomposition has 5 parts, initial decay, putrefaction, black putrefaction, butyric putrefaction, and dry decay. The first part, initial decay, takes on the day of death to 3 days after. The body may look fresh on the outside but inside, it starts to decay. Remember we have many microorganisms in our intestines that help us break down food. And once we die, the bacteria and other microorganisms start to feed on our intestines. When the intestine has been broken down, the bacteria are now able to go to the other organs and start decomposing them. The enzymes within our stomachs and intestines will also leak out to the other organs and tissues. Enzymes inside the cells also leak out and break down the cell and the others. It is also during at this stage that insects, especially flies, start to lay their eggs. Flies get attracted to the scent of the dead body. And since the body can no longer defend itself, flies can lay their eggs in wounds and in different openings in the body. Within a day, the eggs will hatch and the larvae will start to feed on the body.
The next phase, putrefaction, happens 4 to 10 days after the death. As the bacteria break down the body, gases are released. The combination of these gases attracts insects such as flies, beetles, and mites. The gases also cause the body to inflate forcing fluids out of the blood vessels and cells making more room for the insects and more food for the bacteria.
10 to 20 days after the death, black putrefaction occurs. The insects and bacteria continue to feed on the body but the body is no longer bloated. It has collapsed and the flesh is creamy, similar to cottage cheese. More of the fluids have leaked attracting more insects to feed on the flesh. And the exposed parts of the body turn black which is why the stage is called black putrefaction. And the temperature of the body rises because of all the insect activity.
After black putrefaction, butyric fermentation takes place 20 to 50 days after the death. The remaining flesh is removed and the body begins to dry up. A cheese-like scent can be smelled which attracts other organisms such as mold. The maggots can no longer feed on the dried body and so the rest remains for beetles to chew through.
And the last phase, dry decay, takes place from 50 days to a year after the death. Since the body has dried up, the process is very slow. Bacteria and moths consume the hair leaving nothing but bones. And the decomposition ends.
It will take around a year to decompose the body. But this depends on the amount of moisture, temperature, and the availability of the insects and other organisms that feed on the body. It will also take longer for the body to decompose if it is buried compared to it left exposed. So, how those saintly bodies are kept from being decomposed is still a mystery.