Maggots, Rigor Mortis & Decomposition: How To Determine A Person’s Time Of Death

This one is for all of you fans of the dark and morbid! 

Have you ever wondered how forensic scientists are able to determine a person’s time of death? Some of you true crime fans may have some idea but did you know that there is more than one way to do this? 

Let’s start from the beginning – (God forbid) you’ve found a body and are unsure as to when the person might have passed away. Firstly, check if the person is wearing a watch – I know, sounds too easy to be true but apparently it is quite common for a person’s watch to stop working around the time of their death, especially if there was a scuffle involved. 

Failing this, we can look at the various stages of rigor mortis. This is likely the method you’ve seen commonly used on true crime as well as fictional television shows. Rigor mortis sets in within the first three hours after a person dies, caused by a build-up of acid in the muscles making the body look and feel stiff. 

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But did you know there is more than one mortis? Forensic scientists will occasionally use algor mortis and livor mortis to determine a person’s time of death. According to Cosmos science journalist Jacinta Bowler livor mortis is what happens when the blood settles in one place due to gravity, creating a massive purple bruise. 

“It’s sometimes used as a method because in the first 12 hours you can press down on the bruise and it will turn back into white skin colour,” she said. 

These methods are just part of what scientists use to get to the bottom of a person’s death, untimely or otherwise! 

Tune into the first part of the forensics mini series ‘Demystifying Forensics’ below… 

Listen to more of The Science Briefing by downloading the LiSTNR app.