How Long Does an Embalmed Body Decompose?

February 14, 2024

Embalming is a choice and a way for families to say their last farewells. It allows people to see their loved one in a natural-looking state, giving them a chance to process and begin the healing journey. It also gives family members who live far away the opportunity to come and say their final goodbye.

When a body isn’t embalmed, the decomposition and decay of the tissues can take weeks, months or even years to complete. It all depends on a variety of factors such as the casket or mausoleum, temperature, moisture and where it is buried (in ground or above ground in a Mausoleum).

During the first stages of decomposition, known as fresh-stage decomposition, there is visible bloating of the body due to internal gasses from a process called autolysis. The enzymes that start digesting the cells of the deceased person cause this bloating.

After about 72 hours, the decomposition begins to accelerate due to the absence of oxygen and a process called necrosis. During this stage, the muscles and other soft tissues will begin to liquefy and the cadaver will lose its water-based mass. It is during this stage that the soft tissue starts to tear apart, causing muscle flesh to fall off of bones. The skeletal remains are left once the soft tissue has completely disintegrated and only bones are left.

Without embalming, the once-living body will continue to decompose until it is a skeleton. This can take anywhere from weeks when buried at sea to hundreds of years if the body is buried in ice. The ancient Egyptians used natron salt to dry the bodies and prevent any moisture from entering, making them last for hundreds of years.

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