Friday, November 22, 2013

Yup, I'd Say He's Dead All Right: Algor, Livor, and Rigor for Writers


Grave (Photo credit: howzey)
WARNING - this article contains photos of bodies that might be considered graphic or disturbing. Please be aware of your comfort level before reading his post.

Excerpt - CHAIN LYNX

     "Wilson wanted to make sure that he was long gone, and the body was in bad shape when it was found?”
     Deep snorted. “Bad shape, that’s an understatement.”
     “How so?” I asked.
     “It didn’t take the week to find the corpse. The heat in his motel room was on full blast, and they smelled the body from the lobby.”
     “Oh, Gross!”
     Deep waggled his brow. “I’m glad it wasn’t my job to pour him into a bag."

Here's a Video Quick Study (6:11) which humorously goes through the normal steps of what happens from death to interment.

Death is not a pretty sight. It doesn't resemble the Hollywood and television deaths or the deaths often portrayed in literature. There is a series of events that take place. Before we take a quick look at three aspect of decomposition -- algor, livor, and rigor -- let me just address three little sniggly bits. 

1. Urine and Feces - Urine and feces will only leave the body if the bladder or bowl was full.

    The sphincter muscles containing the waste matter relaxes, as do all of the muscles, no longer holding the
     contents inside. If the person has been in the process of dying over many days then they probably have
     not eaten or been hydrated and there is nothing to evacuate. If it is a sudden death, but the person has
     just relieved themselves, they will not eliminate at death.

   "The woman’s lifeless body collapsed like a heap of dirty laundry in front of the door. Urine pooled out from under her." ~ Missing Lynx

Eye death
Eye death (Photo credit: @Doug88888)
2. They close their eyes -Closing one's eyes, as well as
     holding the mouth/jaw shut requires engaged  muscles. At
     death the eyelids will be half open and the jaw will be open
     and off-side. According to my daughter who is a telemetry
     nurse, the mouth slacks and drifts to the side.  
3. Frequently as death approaches the individual will go into a 

    coma or a coma-like state or they become agitated and 
    delusional. From speaking with nurses and hospice workers,
    there is no last second confessional. They go into a state of
    flux, and they expire.

Death is the cessation of all metabolic activity and functions.

1. Legal death can be reversed.
2. Biological death cannot be reversed.

WHAT DOES OCCUR POST MORTEM? How long has this person been dead?

* Breakdown happens because of the lack of body function and an increase in bacteria

   (and other organisms such as bugs).
*  How quickly the body breaks down is largely a function of temperature. 
*  The colder the temperature the slower the chemical changes that breakdown organic matter.
    The cold temperatures also retard organisms such as bacteria and bugs

Video Quick Study (1:08) 5,000 yr old man found frozen in a glacier. The body is amazingly intact.

These changes overlap in time:

Algor Mortis - 

English: Al Gore's Hearing on Global Warming
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NO! That's Al Gore. We're talking about ALGOR mortis when the dead body cools. 
   * The body loses 2 degrees C. in the first 2 hours and approximately
      1 degree per hour after that. How cool the body gets depends on the ambient temperature.
   * Glaister Equation.Link to formula This is most accurate in a temperature controlled environment.
   * The fatter you are the more you store heat (faster decomposition)
   * Temperature of the body at death also increases decomostion. Did they have a fever? Had they just run
       a marathon?
   * Clothing - More clothes trap more heat.
   * Ambient temperature
      Video Quick Study (5:09)

2. Rigor Mortis - 

   * Rigor mortis first appears approximately 1-2 hours after death. 
   * Progressive stiffening occurs for approximately 12 hours,
      persists for approximately 12 hours, then
      diminishes over the next 12 hours as tissues break down as a
      result of autolysis and putrefaction.LINK
   * Because rigor mortis is a chemical reaction to ATP and has to
      do with shortening the muscle, it is
       interesting to note that in someone who has been physically
       active - fighting or running over a period of
       time - the rigor mortis will set in more quickly.

Video Quick Study (0:48) the difference between cold stiffening and rigor mortis
Video Quick Study (3:10) talking about Michael Jackson and rigor mortis

Livor mortis Deutsch: Totenflecke
Livor mortis Deutsch: Totenflecke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
3. Livor Mortis - 
   * There is no longer a functioning circulatory system so
      the blood settles where gravity takes it and is seen
      as purplish on the surface of the skin.
   * If an object is laying below the body, such as a
      weapon, it could show up as a lighter spot on the
   * Darker skin makes this harder to see.
   * This takes place for about 8 hours. After 8 hours the
       blood no longer moves even if the body is turned
   * Skin color might provide information about the cause
      of death. For example cherry red is associated with
      carbon monoxyde poisoning and pink is an indicator
      for cyanide.
   *  Marbling may develop with the delineation of the
       vasculature as a result of the reaction of hydrogen
       sulfide produced by bacteria with hemoglobin from the
       lysis of erythrocytes, as shown belowLINK

Marbling outlines the vasculature in this decedentMarbling outlines the vasculature in this decedent as the postmortem interval lengthens.
 4. As the body continues to decompose
    * bacteria increases and produces a gas. 
    * The body might bloat from the gases esp. in the abdomen. It 
       can bloat to the point of bursting. This
       bloating brings bodies to the surface of the water if the person
       drowned or a body was dumped. According to Cookie, a 
       recovery diver who spoke to us at the WPA, the body will float
       around the seventh day and will descend again once the fish,
       birds, etc. who are eating the body poke a hole in the
       tissue allowing the gases to escape. 

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. That was priceless with the picture of Al Gore! A great post, very informative. I did not know of the 3 types of 'mortis', just the rigor one. It's interesting how skin color indicates different death types. If someone was poisoned with cyanide and subsequently thrown in water and not retrieved until about 24 hours later, would the color still show up?

    Thanks, Fiona,


    1. Hi Eden,

      Forensics: A Guide For Writers by D.P. Lyle, M.D., "Cyanide and carbon monoxide cause a cherry-red appearance to the blood and tissues and lead to pink lividity"

      And also, "At autopsy, if the ME sees bright red blood, a reddish hue to a purplish hue of internal organs, and a pink lividity, he would suspect cyanide.

      About decomposition - I believe your character is in cold sea water, right? In 24 hours they should still see pink lividity and certainly with the autopsy they would see the organ color. Here's some more info from Sciencefocus:
      "It depends on the temperature of the water. In cold water, the bacterial action that causes a body to bloat with gas may be so slowed that the body stays on the seabed. The skin will absorb water and peel away from the underlying tissues in about a week and fish, crabs and sea lice will nibble away at the flesh. Cold water also encourages the formation of adipocere. This is a waxy, soapy substance formed from the fat in the body that partially protects the body against decomposition. Bodies have been retrieved almost completely intact from waters below 7°C after several weeks, and as recognizable skeletons after five years."

      Cyanide works by disallowing oxygen to be utilized by the body. So while they are breathing the red blood cells do not carry oxygen to the brain. This is much like a Type 1 diabetic without insulin food goes in food can not be used so they slowly starve. Here are some other things to think about - remember the #1 swift decomposition issue is ambient temperature, if they are in icy seas then this slows everything down. What could speed things up PRIOR to being thrown in water? Are they fat? Did they fight hard/run a long way?

      Hope this helps!
      Cheers, Fiona

  2. Hi Fiona,

    just spent the last hour looking through the interesting and very useful information on your blog, thanks for being so helpful to other writers. The information on guns is particularly useful to the second book in my Lambeth Croak series, which I'm currently working on. Thanks again