Cicero wrote, “the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” While the life of the dead may remain the memory of the living, a reality of death is the smell associated with an unattended body. Indeed, the stench associated with a body after death can be extreme.
If you are like most people, you certainly are aware that a decomposing body has a stench, even if you’ve been fortunate to never encounter one. If you are also like most individuals, you really do not know the process that occurs and results in a body smelling badly after death.
The Human Body Immediately After Death
In order to fully understand why a body smells after death, you need to first have a decent understanding of what actually is involved in the death process itself. For example, you need to have a general understanding of what happens directly after a human being passes away.
When a heart stops beating, the death process actually commences. Brain activity will continue for a period of time after a heart stops working. However, it is the cessation of the workings of the heart that commence the death process itself. The heart provides the nutrients and energy to all parts of the body that allow it to function. When blood stops flowing, the end of life has commenced.
When the heart stops beating, the human body immediately starts to cool. The initial phase of the body cooling is called algor mortis, according to the Health Drip medical journal. The body temperature cools at the rate of about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit an hour until it reaches room temperature.
While it is going through the cooling process, the lack of flowing blood has another major consequence. The blood begins to pool and settle. It is this process of pooling and settling of the blood that causes what is known as rigor mortis.
Life After Death: What Goes on Inside the Human Body
Although these are the more obvious processes that start to occur when a human being dies, when it comes to the decomposition of a corpse, it is not so much what is dead as what remains alive that causes the smell associated with death. Although the human body in its entirety may be declared dead, there remain things inside a body that remain very much alive. For example, the skin is an organ. Skin remains fully alive for at least 24 hours after the death of a body. The harvesting of human skin is permitted for 24 hours for use in transplants.
A prime example of something that carries on living in a body after death is declared is bacteria contained within some of the bodily organs. This includes bacteria in a deceased person’s intestines and pancreas.
When bodily death occurs, this triggers bacteria to start attacking or breaking down their host, which is the human body itself. When blood stops flowing, bacteria are deprived of their ready source of nutrients.
The pancreas is a prime example of how this process works. The human pancreas has a high concentration of bacteria. There are so many when the bacteria starts breaking down the pancreas, the bacteria act in a manner that the organ digests itself.
The same process, in a less dramatic way, occurs in the intestines as well. Once the bacteria have run out nourishment in the intestines, they start to move to other organs in a person’s body.
Bacteria and the Deceased Human Body
Once the bacteria starts its work outside of the intestines and pancreas, a process which occurs in a matter of two to three days in many instances, a growing amount of noxious smelling gas is emitted. As the gas accumulates inside and escapes from the body, the corpse begins to discolor. Initially, it turns green, then purple, and finally black.
The release of gas is so significant, whatever space or room the body is placed will begin to fill with a foul, virtually intolerable odor. People oftentimes refer to this as the smell of rotting flesh. Technically, the odor associated with a dead body after two or three days is the result of the gas being expelled by the process of bacteria consuming the body via the process of decomposition or the decomposing of human organs.
The strength and amount of gas that is emitted during the process of decomposition cannot be underestimated. The pressure internally can be so great that, despite the fact that some gas is escaping and fouling the air, there remains so much trapped gas that a body can literally explode.
Preserving the Human Body After Death
In the United States, most people want to memorialize their deceased loved ones. This typically means having funerals and memorial services. Because of the rapid rate in which a body decomposes, the embalming process oftentimes is used to preserve the body for a funeral. In addition, the laws of a particular state, together with religious customs or practices, govern the manner in which a body is dealt with following death.
Individual states have specific laws regarding the disposition of a body after death. For example, a typical state law may require that a body is cremated, embalmed, or properly buried within a specified amount of time after death. The length of time in which this must happened usually is quite limited. For example, one of these three things typically will need to occur within 24 hours unless a body is refrigerated. Refrigeration can bring the decomposition process to an essential standstill.
The Embalming Process
Embalming can essentially arrest the decomposition process, according to the Journal of Anatomy. You need to keep in mind the “essentially arrest” the decomposition process. Although there are highly complex embalming techniques that can fully arrest decomposition, the standard type of embalming used in the United States is designed to forestall decomposition, not arrest it forever.
The primary method of preserving a human body in this manner is called arterial embalming. As the moniker suggests, embalming chemicals are injected into a body’s blood vessels. The chemical most commonly used in the process in the United States, and elsewhere around the world, is formaldehyde. There are some supplemental techniques that can be employed in addition to arterial embalming if the decomposition process needs to be delayed for a longer period of time or arrested altogether.
As an aside, the use of formaldehyde is becoming controversial, causing the exploration of alternative chemicals in the embalming process. Opposition to formaldehyde centers around the contention that it is harmful to the environment. Those opposed to its use contend that no matter how well a coffin is sealed, ultimately there will still be leakage of the embalming fluid into the soil and water. More than likely this will be a leakage of formaldehyde into the environment. Researchers maintain that formaldehyde is harmful to the soil and water.
One of the alternatives to formaldehyde that is being considered is a type of alcohol known as methanol. Methanol is demonstrated to be effective at killing bacteria, which is crucial in an effort to stop decomposition.
The combination of cold storage and embalming, which is a practice with most funeral homes, can allow remains to be in a condition to be viewed for an extended period of time.
The story of Eva Peron, better known as Evita because of the musical of the same name, underscores the limitations of traditional embalming, according to the BBC. In order for traditional embalming, of the type used in the United States, to be most effective, it must be undertaken within a couple of hours after death. The decomposition process starts that quickly, and once it commences renders embalming less effective.
When it became clear that Eva Peron, who was the much-revered First Lady of Argentina, was nearing death, her husband, President Juan Peron, flew the best-known embalmer in the world to Buenos Aries. Directly after Eva Peron died, the embalming process began.
The goal was to permanently preserve Eva Peron’s body for indefinite public viewing. After her funeral, and almost two weeks of public exposure, her body was returned to the embalmer for the real process to permanently preserve her body. The process is best described as mummification.
The embalmer ultimately pumped Peron’s body full of a combination of alcohol, glycerin, and other preservative chemicals. The skin was coated with plastic-like film. Through this supplemental process, further decomposition became impossible, and the prospect for any odor associated with the body was permanently eliminated.
As an aside, as a general practice, when traditional embalming is performed in the United States, bodily organs are not removed. The only instance in which they might be extracted from a human body in the preservation process if there was a desire for long-term preservation of remains, like that associated with Eva Peron.
Disposing of a Body Without Embalming
The disposition of remains can occur in most jurisdictions without embalming, provided specific protocols are followed. Directly after death, one of three things will happen to a body directly after death. The remains might be temporarily placed in refrigeration until a decision can be made in regard to final disposition.
A cremation can be scheduled to occur promptly after a person’s death. If the cremation is indeed promptly undertaken, in compliance with state law, embalming will not occur.
Finally, if a burial is to occur immediately, usually within about 24 to 48 hours, the remains can be placed into a sealed coffin for burial or placement in a crypt. The operative word, in this case, is sealed.
Sealing the coffin does not stop the decomposition process. That process will continue apace. However, the sealing of a casket prevents the escape of odor associated with the bacteria consuming bodily organs, as described previously.
Some people understandably believe that the placement of remains in a sealed coffin promptly stops the decomposition process. The process can be slowed if the coffin containing the remains are placed in refrigeration, which oftentimes is the case.
The decomposition process ultimately will cease when a body is placed in an airtight coffin. However, that ultimate result does not immediately occur and the decomposition process continues to a point where a considerable amount of destruction is done to a body in most instances.
Embalming and Remains Preservation in the United States
The reality is that the preservation of remains for funeral purposes in the United States extends only as far back as the Civil War. Prior to that time, embalming was not practiced as a general rule in the U.S.A. There were three primary objectives of embalming, according to the Journal of Anatomy.
Embalming as a funeral practice really started in 1861 to prevent the spread of disease after death, before and after burial. In addition, embalming was practiced in order to allow people a bit more time to mourn rather than have to ensure hastily undertaken funerals. Finally, embalming was utilized at that time to address post-death body odors.
During the Civil War, about 620,000 soldiers were killed. This marked a significant increase in the number of deceased individuals whose bodies needed to be addressed. Controlling unnecessary odor and the spread of disease became of paramount concern during this time period.
Human bodies are complicated while living. Even after death, they remain complex systems that have actions and reactions, some that include the expulsion of malodorous gas.