Decomposition of a Body in Water

Most of us have heard the term “floater” applied to a dead body found in water.  But does a dead body thrown into a body of water float right away?  The answer is no.  In fact, with no air in the lungs or blood stream, the body sinks.  It’s not until putrefaction occurs, and gases accumulate in the body’s tissues and cavities that the body rises to the surface and floats again.

Putrefaction is the process of decomposition, caused by microorganisms (bacteria).  Because the gases are a byproduct of the active bacteria, it is greatly affected by the temperature of the water.

In warm water, bacterial growth is accelerated, thereby increasing the gases at a faster rate than in cold water.  A body may float after 1-2 weeks in warm water, and as long as weeks or months in cold water.

A general guideline for decay in temperate water:
1-3 days – swollen hands, and face
5-6 days – separation of skin from the body
8-10 days – loss of fingernails

These physical signs are variable and depends on both the conditions within the corpse and in the water.

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