Algor Mortis: Definition & Causes

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Algor mortis is one of three stages a body goes through after death that helps medical examiners determine time of death. This lesson discusses the definition and process.

Stages of Decomposition

When someone dies there are several stages a body goes through as it decomposes over the first 24-48 hours. These stages assist medical examiners to determine how long a body has been dead.

The three stages of decomposition are:

  • Livor mortis - Meaning ''discoloration of death''. What this means is that once someone dies, the blood starts draining from the extremities down to the area that is on the ground. For example, a body lying on its back is going to be pale on the chest and face, while dark on the back and buttocks.
  • Algor mortis - Meaning ''coldness of death''. This is where the body starts to cool down in temperature and this stage lasts for a few hours. However, it does not start till 30 minutes to an hour after death.
  • Rigor mortis - Meaning ''stiffness of death''. This is where the body muscles will contract and make a body stiff, which starts a few hours after the death and can continue up to 24 hours.

Each of these stages happen during certain times of the decomposition of a body, which allows for medical examiners to really get an idea of the time of death. In this lesson, we are going to explore the specific causes and state of algor mortis.

Algor Mortis

There are two ways to take the temperature of a cadaver: rectally or with a meat thermometer pushed under the ribcage into the liver. Both methods allow the internal temperature to be taken, which is less affected by external stimuli. Since algor mortis is the cooling of a body you have to take into account different aspects that affect temperature when trying to get an idea about time of death.

Usually, the rate of temperature loss is 1.5 - 2 degrees for every hour after the person passes. However, with the different things that can affect temperature, this may not be a valid way to determine time of death. So it is important if using temperature to get to the body within a few hours of death, otherwise the body may be the ambient temperature of the area.

What Affects Algor Mortis

There are several different things that will affect the temperature of a dead body.

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