As space travel for recreational purposes is becoming a very real possibility, there could come a time when we are traveling to other planets for holidays, or perhaps even to live. Commercial space company Blue Origin has already started sending paying customers on sub-orbital flights. And Elon Musk hopes to start a base on Mars with his firm SpaceX.
This means we need to start thinking about what it will be like to live in space—but also what will happen if someone dies there.
After death here on Earth, the human bodyprogresses through a number of stages of decomposition. These were described as early as 1247 in Song Ci’s The Washing Away of Wrongs, essentially the first forensic science handbook.
First the blood stops flowing and begins to pool as a result of gravity, a process known as livor mortis. Then the body cools to algor mortis, and the muscles stiffen due to uncontrolled build-up of calcium in the muscle fibers. This is the state of rigor mortis. Next enzymes, proteins which speed up chemical reactions, break down cell walls releasing their contents.
At the same time, the bacteria in our gut escape and spread throughout the body. They devour the soft tissues—putrefaction—and the gases they release cause the body to swell. Rigor mortis is undone as the muscles are destroyed, strong smells are emitted and the soft tissues are broken down.
These decomposition processes are the intrinsic factors, but there are also external factors which influence the process of decomposition, including temperature, insect activity, burying or wrapping a body, and the presence of fire or water.
In damp environments without oxygen, adipocere formation can occur, where the water can cause the breakdown of fats into a waxy material through the process of hydrolysis. This waxy coating can act as a barrier on top of the skin to protect and preserve it.
But in most cases, the soft tissues will ultimately disappear to reveal the skeleton. These hard tissues are much more resilient and can survive for thousands of years.