Establishing the time since death is critical in every death investigation, yet existing techniques are susceptible to a range of errors and biases. For example, forensic entomology is widely used to assess the postmortem interval (PMI), but errors can range from days to months. Microbes may provide a novel method for estimating PMI that avoids many of these limitations. Here we show that postmortem microbial community changes are dramatic, measurable, and repeatable in a mouse model system, allowing PMI to be estimated within approximately 3 days over 48 days. Our results provide a detailed understanding of bacterial and microbial eukaryotic ecology within a decomposing corpse system and suggest that microbial community data can be developed into a forensic tool for estimating PMI. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01104.001.