Graveyard Shift

What Happens to a Body That Decomposes Underwater  

Natalie Hazen
277.8k views 7 items

If you're wearing "cement shoes," chances are you might find yourself "sleeping with the fishes." While this may sound like dialogue taken from The Godfather, it raises the real question: What happens to a corpse in water? Mere moments after expiring, body decomposition kicks in as bacterial enzymes start to break down the body's soft tissues and spread throughout the blood vessels. From there, it's a pretty predictable process of putrefaction, then bloat, purge, advanced decay, and finally, dry remains.

However, submersion in water slows down this process and most notably, stops your body from becoming a buffet for flies and other creepy crawlies like it does on land. The truth is, there's just a lot we don't know about underwater body decomposition, which is why scientists have recently conducted studies and experiments ranging from recovering deceased victims of plane tragedies to dumping pig carcasses into Canadian waters. Read on to learn some gruesome facts about underwater decomposition sure to pique your morbid curiosity.

Your Body Sinks
Your Body Sinks is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Happens to a Body That Decomposes Underwater
Photo:  Rachel Carpentier/Pexels/Pexels License

It goes without saying that a body in water is going to get wet. However, how your body reacts to the water largely depends on how you expire. When you drown, your lungs fill up with water, and the air sacs inside your lungs act like a sponge. This process causes your body to get denser than the surrounding water and sink to the bottom.

Using this information, pathologists can determine whether a person drowned or if they were deceased prior to submersion. In a short enough time frame, victims have the tendency to float since their lungs are still full of air rather than water.

Your Body Breaks Down - But Slowly
Your Body Breaks Down - But Sl... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Happens to a Body That Decomposes Underwater
Photo: Hassan.yaym/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Your body generally breaks down more slowly in water than in open air, but other factors can affect the rate of decomposition. You'll putrefy faster in warm, fresh, or stagnant water (a perfect breeding ground for bacteria) than in cold, salty, or running water.

In fact, a body decomposing in open air for a week may look similar to a body that has been underwater for two weeks.

You Get Super Pruney And Change Colors
You Get Super Pruney And Chang... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Happens to a Body That Decomposes Underwater
Photo:  Savanna Smiles/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

You know how your hands look after taking a long bath? Now imagine that, but instead of a relaxing bubble bath, picture your bloated corpse left in the ocean for months at a time. Needless to say, being submerged in water for that long causes your epidermis to blister and turn greenish-black.

It also causes the skin on your hands and feet to become swollen, bleached, and wrinkled.

You Get Gas

As your submerged corpse decays under water, bacteria in your gut and chest cavity builds up and produces methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide - AKA gas. This combination makes your body bloat and float up to the surface of the water.

Because your gassy torso rises first, your head and limbs are left dangling behind - which is why you often find corpses, or "floaters," face-down in the water