Stage 4: Livor Mortis

The fourth stage of decomposition, Livor Mortis translates to “blueish color” [livor] “of death” [mortis] although it has many names including “hypostasis”, “suggillation”, “cadaveric lividity”, “darkening of death” and “postmortem staining”. Livor Mortis begins when circulation stops, blood vessels become more permeable due to decomposition, and blood settles throughout the corpse. Red blood cells, which are very dense, travel and pool in the lowest areas possible, staining the tissue. This means in a hanging death, discoloration would be seen in the feet, fingertips and ear lobes. Males who die from hanging may also acquire what’s known as a “Death Erection” (or “Angel Lust”) due to the pooling of blood in their penis.

Death Erection

In someone who died in the supine position (lying face up), lividity would appear on the corpse’s back. Drowning victims, or bodies found in water show signs of Livor Mortis in the face, upper parts of the chest, hands, lower arms, feet and calves because they are in constant motion. Livor Mortis begins within 20 minutes to 2 hours of death and initially causes the skin to appear blue and blotchy. Blood congeals in the capillaries within 4-5 hours and in 5-6 hours, blotches on the skin become more fluid. At this time, if pressure is applied to the discolored area(s), skin will turn white. Maximum lividity can be observed between 6-12 hours, and after 10-12 hours, skin will retain discoloration even when pressed. The name is slightly misleading as it tends to appear more of a blueish-purple or purple-ish red in most cases. Certain poisons alter the color of postmortem staining, which can aid in determining cause of death. In a carbon monoxide poisoning death, discoloration would be a cherry pink. Hydrocyanic acid poisoning appears bright red, and nitrates, potassium chlorate, potassium bicarbonate, nitrobenzene and aniline (which causes methaemoglobinaemia) all manifest as a red-brown or brown discoloration. Phosphorus poisoning causes dark brown postmortem staining. Discoloration is especially evident on the ear lobes and underneath fingernails and in fair-skinned people. Intensity of the color depends on the amount of hemoglobin in the blood of the deceased and hypostastis can be internal as well as external, often manifesting on the heart, lungs, kidney, spleen and other organs. During later stages of Livor Mortis, the body may also begin to show “marbling”, which is caused by the breakdown of hemoglobin.

Tardieu Spots

Corpses in the later stages of Livor Mortis may also develop “Tardieu spots”, which look like purple liver spots. These dark spots are created by ruptured capillaries. In addition, “vibices” are often visible on bodies during the stage of Livor Mortis. Vibices look like strips or bands and are caused by pressure, usually left by tight-fitting clothing such as socks, belts and bras. In hanging deaths, a noose or other method of hanging may be visible in the form of a vibice. When pressure is applied to the corpse, it prevents blood from pooling in those areas.

Vibices seen on corpse. Lividity suggests corpse was in supine position at time of death.

Petechiae, larger haemorrhages or palpable blood blisters may form on patches of discolored skin. The subtle differences between postmortem staining/haemorrhages and bruising obtained in a fatal accident or murder is evident to investigators when determining cause of death. The discoloration caused by pooling of blood in the vessels appears slightly different from bruises which are formed when blood escapes the vessel. Livor Mortis is incredibly useful in determining whether a body has been moved after death. For example, if a body is livor on the back, indicating they died in the supine position but are discovered in prone position (face down), it is evident someone move the body. Signs of the fourth stage of decomposition are also a tale-tell sign that resuscitation is futile.
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Find out what happens before Livor Mortis in Stage 1: Pallor Mortis, Stage 2: Algor Mortis, and Stage 3: Rigor Mortis and after Stage 5: Putrefaction

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