Graveyard Shift
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All The Organisms That Eat Up Your Corpse, From Just After Death To The Very End

Updated November 5, 2019 71.0k views12 items

When we muse over all the things that might happen after we die, our thoughts tend to be about the afterlife and consciousness. However, have you ever wondered what happens to your body after death, in a more physical and biological sense? Rest assured, your body hardly goes to waste - in fact, it becomes a splendid buffet enjoyed by many different organisms, from the bacteria already in your body to the larvae of insects who were just passing by at the right time. So, if you're not too squeamish about decomposition, let's take a closer look at the organisms and bacteria that hang out in a body after death.

Keep in mind as we go through this decomposition timeline that not every person will host the same critters in their corpse. Depending on the time of year, the location, and even on your own biology, an assortment of different bacteria and creatures may find your remains tasty. The ones mentioned here are simply the most common, but they probably wont be the only ones accompanying you to the other side.

Remember, this is all about corpses, bacteria, and insects, so reader discretion is advised. And don't worry, you'll already be dead by the time these little guys find you, so you won't feel a thing (probably).

  • Photo: National Institutes of Health (NIH) / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Your Gut Bacteria Begin To Wander

    Shockingly, the first things to nibble on your fresh corpse are living inside you right now!

    When you die, not everything inside you dies right away. Many of your cells remain alive and the bacteria that feed on those cells and nutrients remain alive, too. In particular, your gut is filled with a whole lot of active bacteria and while you're alive, your body is pretty good at keeping all of that bacteria in one place; however, after death, those restrictions are lifted. The bacteria, in search of new things to feast on, begin to spread.

    Within the first 24 hours of dying, your gut bacteria can spread through your intestines, into your blood, into your other organs (especially your liver), and will begin to chow down. The result is that the bacteria begin to produce gases and your body starts to bloat - one of the earliest signs of decomposition.

  • Photo: ionscopelimited / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Anaerobic Bacteria Start To Break Down Your Body

    As self-digestion is revving up, your body moves from the early stages of decomposition into putrefaction. Putrefaction is the breakdown of soft tissues into gases, liquids, and salts, and it is sped along by yet another sort of bacteria that actually differs from the ones already munching on your organs. You see, most of the bacteria that are eating you before the putrefaction stage are called aerobic bacteria, and require oxygen in order to thrive.

    At this point, however, you'll start finding bacteria that do not need oxygen, called anaerobic bacteria. They eat the body's tissues and ferment the sugars you've already got stored up in there, producing things like methane, hydrogen, sulfide, and ammonia. Bloating will be in full effect now, as these guys create the majority of the gases that can eventually makes us burst.

    It's worth noting that, by this point, you're going to be stinking. A lot. 

  • Photo: Martin Cooper Ipswich / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Flies Are Attracted To Your Rotting Corpse

    It's a good thing you're getting stinky, too, because that's what attracts the next scavenger. About four days after you die, blowflies and flesh flies will start picking up that sweet, rotting smell you're emitting. Flow flies may even start to poke around sooner, as soon as an hour after death, but by this time you're ripe for the eating. They come to your body, smelling a practical feast of decaying flesh, their favorite meal.

    The flies will eat flesh and skin cells, and may eat any waste that has since come out of your body as your insides are digested by bacteria. Once they're done feasting for themselves, they will then lay a whole bunch of eggs on you, allowing the next generation to enjoy you as well. And a bunch of eggs means anywhere between 200 to 500 little hatchlings, and they'll be hungry!

  • Photo: Seattle.roamer / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Fly Maggots Will Wriggle All Over You

    After another day has passed, the fly eggs are ready to hatch into little baby flies, also known as maggots. When you think of things that eat corpses and imagine little wormy white things, you're thinking of maggots - and for good reason. Hundreds and eventually thousands of maggots can colonize a body, eating the decaying tissue as they move.

    They also create a lot of heat just eating, so the maggots have to wiggle constantly in order to keep cool, so your body will look like it's in persistent motion. They'll move all across your body, oftentimes in the same direction and track over time, so there may even end up being lines and holes of eaten flesh where there has been the highest amount of maggot activity.

    Once the maggots have had their fill, they grow into flies, and then these flies return to your corpse, eat, lay their own eggs, and begin the cycle over again until there is nothing left for them to eat.