What Really Happens When You Die? 10 Surprising Facts
Death is a sad, yet fascinating process. Most people are familiar with death, regardless of if it is from visiting a funeral home, a hospital, or helping with a burial, most people have had some contact with this phenomenon by the time they reach adulthood. Even though death is inevitable, many people can’t even begin to imagine what goes on to and within their bodies after death. Some of the occurrences are gross, while others are downright fascinating.
Every single minute, there is an average of 107 deaths (based on information from the population clock provided by the Census Bureau). This means there are more than 56 million deaths, all around the world, every year. The leading cause of death is – and has been for the past decade – cardiovascular diseases.
The fact is, everyone knows that death is coming. It is not something you can escape or fool. At some point an time, everyone passes. However, before you get to the end of your life, wouldn’t you like to know a bit more about the process? What happens? How does your body “accept” death?
Here you can read about 10 interesting facts about death that you may not have ever been aware of. While there are some the squeamish may want to avoid, the process is nonetheless fascinating. If you have a morbid curiosity, then you are definitely in the right place. Read on to discover new information about death and your life.
10It Appears Your Fingernails and Hair Continue to Grow
In the past, many people believed that a person’s fingernails and their hair continued to grow after they passed away. While this is somewhat of a gruesome idea, it is pretty fascinating to think about. However, it’s a complete myth.
It may look like hair and nails continue to grow, but this is because of another natural process that happens to the body after death. The fact is, when you pass away, your flesh begins to shrink as it dries out. This type of reaction may make it look like the hair and nails are longer, simply because the skin is no longer as close to these parts of the body.
However, while there is no active growth, there is some degree of truth to this idea. Since death is not an instantaneous process, when your heart stops beating your brain cells are going to die rather quickly. However, the cells that use less oxygen to live can continue working for a little bit longer. As a result, there is the potential for the nails and hair to grow a microscopic amount after the brain has died.
This by no means results in you seeing this type of change. The growth that is present is so small you would need an extremely powerful microscope to see it. In most cases, people are not evaluating and inspecting a person’s dead body that closely. Don’t worry if someone’s nails and hair appear to have grown, this is not the case and they are, in fact, really dead.
9Your Body Turns Rock Hard
The official term for this is rigor mortis. This actually refers to the action of the muscles stiffening after a person has died. The reason this happens is because the body does not have access to adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This is the chemical in the muscles that is required to relax your muscle fibers once they have contracted.
ATP is a substance that is created metabolically by your muscle cells and what forces the muscle’s contractile units to disengage. If you stop breathing, your cells are no longer going to produce ATP. As a result, the microscopic fibers become locked and your muscles get stiff.
The muscles in your face become completely stiff within two to four hours after you have passed away. This stiffening effect reaches the larger groups of muscles in approximately six to 12 hours after death. It is important to understand that this is not the same thing as a tense muscle cramp you may experience after a marathon. This level of hardness is comparable to rocks. After 24 to 48 hours, the muscles begin to degrade and your body looks more relaxed once again.
Because it takes so long for muscles to appear relaxed again, many people wait to hold a funeral until that time. This helps the person being buried appear more natural and look as though they are asleep, rather than dead.
8You May Have an Accident
While this does not happen in every situation, it is something that may take place. On average, about one in every 10 dead people urinate or defecate after death. Urination often occurs because the body relaxes prior to completely shutting down. This type of elimination is not indicative to a full bladder.
Defecation may occur directly before or after death has occurred. While the process of this elimination is not a voluntary movement, it is something that occurs often. If the fecal matter is not released as a person passes away, it is often released when the body is moved or removed from a location.
Even though there are some muscles that spontaneously contract when a person dies, and while all muscles eventually tighten up during rigor mortis, there are other muscles that loosen their grip. While this is happening, the part of the brain that regulates involuntary functions is also shutting down. This is specifically true for the portion of the brain that is in charge of the muscles responsible for holding your sphincter closed.
Much like the times you laughed so hard you peed on yourself, you may urinate and defecate as the spontaneous relaxation of your muscles occurs. In fact, it is not only the muscles but the gas present inside of your body after death that results in this action. The fact is, there isn’t much that you can say about this No one ever claimed that death was pretty.
7Erection and Ejaculation
When the heart is no longer pumping blood throughout the body, it is going to pool in whatever area is lowest to the ground. In some situations, a person dies standing up, while others pass away lying face down. Chances are you can imagine what kind of blood pooling these positions would create. As a result, many men pass away and have an erection. In some cases, ejaculation also occurs.
Even though some muscles relax when you die, this doesn’t last forever. There are certain muscle cells that are initially activated by the calcium ions that are present. After this activation occurs, the cells begin to expend energy to ensure the calcium ions return to the outside of the cells. After death has occurred, the membranes are more permeable to calcium and the cells aren’t expending as much energy to push these ions out. As a result, the muscles contract. This leads to rigor mortis, and in some cases, can result in ejaculation. This really happens.
Much like the urination and defecation, this is not something that happens with every dead body. It usually depends on how the person was positioned when they passed away. However, it is not uncommon, and some funeral directors have stated that this is one of the reasons they keep the lower portion of men’s bodies covered by the coffin lid during a funeral. After all, it can create a bit of awkwardness if family members were paying their respect to a deceased loved one and they had an erection.
When a dead person experiences any type of movement after death, it is often referred to as the Lazarus reflex or Lazarus sign. This is a reflex movement in an individual that results in them quickly raise up their arms and then let them fall – in a crossed position – on top of their chests.
In many cases, the reflex is preceded by the person’s arms shivering or by the appearance of goose bumps on the individual’s torso and arms. The arms may even flex near the elbows prior to being lifted over the sternum. After that, the arms are often brought toward the chin or neck, cross over or even touch. Some people even exhale while the action is taking place.
Much like the well-known knee-jerk reflex, the Lazarus reflex is a classic example of an involuntary movement that is mediated by the neural pathway that passes through your spinal column but doesn’t reach the brain. While this phenomenon occurs in patients that are officially declared brain dead, it has also been observed several minutes after medical ventilators have been removed, or turned off.
In some cases, this movement has resulted in brain dead patients being kept on machines longer than necessary. The fact is, occurrences of the Lazarus sign in a number of intensive care units has been mistaken as evidence that a patient has been resuscitated. These movements often frighten individuals who see them and have even been talked about as a “miraculous occurrence.”
Your body is, essentially, a sack of goo and gas that is supported with bones (which are then filled with even more goo). The rotting process occurs when bacteria begin to work inside the body and when the proportion of gas goes up. Since there are so many bacteria inside of your body, the gas quickly builds up inside after death. There are several ways that the gas escapes the body.
One of the ways that gas leaves the body is by going through the windpipe. Since the process of rigor mortis causes all of the muscles to stiffen, even the ones that work the vocal cords, the combination can lead to people hearing rather strange and eerie sounds coming out of dead bodies. For example, many nurses and funeral directors have claimed to hear squeaks, groans, and moans coming from dead bodies.
Groans and moans may also occur when any type of force or pressure is applied to a dead person’s chest. For example, when the coroner is moving the body for an autopsy, or even when the funeral staff is dressing or preparing a body. Even though there are a number of legends out there about bodies blabbering randomly, the fact is this is only going to occur if there is air coming out of the body in some way.
As a result, there is no reason to run for the hills if you are around when this type of situation arises. It is completely normal and something that is expected when it comes to death.
There is nothing that is quite as frightening as the thought of a dead body giving birth, right? However, this particular occurrence was first documented by German doctors. When it was first observed, the doctors referred to it as a “coffin birth.” However, it is quite rare that a pregnant woman “gives birth” after they die. This process is officially called “postmortem fetal extrusion.”
What happens during this is that a fetus is pushed through the opening of the vagina of the decomposing, pregnant woman’s body due to the pressure created by the intra-abdominal gasses. This only takes place when the fetus is in a head down position, ready to exit the womb. Within the past decade, there are two cases of postmortem birth that have taken place.
In 2005, the researchers from the University of Hamburg documented a case where a 34-year-old drug addict, who was eight months pregnant, was found dead inside her apartment. The head of her fetus was protruding slightly from beneath her slip. Even though it was not a live birth, the baby was pushed out after the woman died because of the abdominal gas pressure.
In another case, documented in 2007, a 23-year-old Indian woman, who was more than eight months pregnant, hung herself after contractions started. Her body was found with a “viable infant” on the floor and connected to its mother via the umbilical cord. This is not a case of postmortem fetal extrusion, but rather a situation where postmortem delivery occurred.
3Your Skin May Appear Stained
Have you ever watched television and seen the fake blood pools around bodies? Have you ever noticed it looks a bit like Jell-O? The fact is, this same type of jellification occurs to the blood inside of your body once you die.
When your heart is no longer pumping, the blood stops flowing. As a result, gravity takes control. This results in the blood in your body thickening and starting to pool in whichever body part is lowest (this was mentioned earlier in the erection fact).
If you are sitting down, this is typically the ankles or feet and if you are lying on your back, your backside. If the blood remains in this area for more than 12 hours, then staining can occur.
This is typically observed as being a purplish-red or bluish-purple discoloration. In most cases, the staining appears beneath the skin in the most superficial layers of the dermis. It is officially referred to as post-mortem staining, suggillations, cadaveric lividity, or livor mortis. The intensity of the color seen is dependent on the amount of reduced hemoglobin present in the blood.
In some cases, the staining is seen in patches or blotches throughout the body; however, in other cases, it is a consistent color over a certain part of the body. In most cases, this staining is eliminated by the embalming process, but if this is not done, then it is often seen in a dead body.
2Skin Cells Continue Living
There are certain cells in your body that are going to die within seconds or a few minutes of death. Most of these are the ones that require a consistent source of oxygen to survive, such as your neurons.
There are other cells that are more immune to a depleted oxygen supply, but the majority of vital organs are going to expire rather quickly. If fact, according to doctors, the warm ischemic time is limited to only 30 minutes to harvest a liver for transplant purposes and only 60 minutes for the pancreas or kidney. This means that it is imperative to remove these organs from the dead body within this period of time and chilled to help prevent cell death and to allow for a successful transplant. Also, the lungs and heart can’t last very long without blood flow.
There are other parts of your body that are more resistant and can live longer without a source of oxygen. Connective and structural tissue, including corneas, heart valves, skin, tendons, and bone are able to undergo harvesting for up to 24 hours after death.
According to research, the cells that live the longest are your skin cells. This is because they possess the advantage of being located on the outside of the body. As a result, the skin cells can absorb, through the process of osmosis, anything they can from the environment around them, even after a person is declared as dead. In fact, the skin cells can remain alive for several days all on their own – this is pretty impressive considering you are actually dead.
1The Bacteria in Your Gut Goes Bonkers
After you die, your body is no longer functioning. You don’t breathe, your blood doesn’t pump through your veins. Nothing is held “in place” any longer. As a result, various bacteria, and other particles can “run amuck” in your body.
The bacteria that typically lives in your gut – you know the “good” bacteria that aid with digestion, keep your immune system in great shape, and help you lose or gain weight – are able to run freely throughout your body once you are dead. The bacteria that were once restricted to living in your upper-respiratory tract and in your gut take advantage of their new freedom and move into the bloodstream. They use the “highway” of your veins and arteries to move into all parts of your body. As a result, they essentially begin to eat and destroy your body – from the inside out.
This is perhaps the grossest thing on this list. After all, who wants to read about their own body eating itself? However, this is something that happens. Also, as mentioned before, bacteria are responsible for creating gas. This gas is what creates the unpleasant smell of decomposition. In fact, if you lean in too close to a body that has been left to decompose, chances are you aren’t going to like what you smell very much. The smell is a result of the waste product produced by the bacteria that are eating your dead corpse. While this isn’t a pleasant thought, it is essentially why there is nothing left of your body as time passes but bones. If it were not for bacteria, this breakdown and decomposition process would not occur.
While the majority of people don’t really want to think about what happens to their body after they are no longer alive, forensic scientists and several other researchers find the topic quite interesting. In fact, they find it so intriguing that they have recorded the details of how this natural process works and what happens each step of the way. In most cases, it is said that death begins with the heart. When this vital organ no longer beats, your breathing is going to stop as well. After that, the brain stops functioning because of the lack of oxygen.
However, the truth is that your body doesn’t really die in this much of an orderly or sudden manner. Different parts die at different rates based on your particular body, as well as the circumstances of your death. You may discover that some or all of the things listed above occur. When you pass away, you no longer know what is going on. As a result, this information may not bother you too much. However, it is pretty interesting to learn about. After all, this is your body – don’t you want to know what happens when death comes knocking? Death and taxes are the only two certainties in life – and you know what to expect from your taxes, don’t you want the same peace of mind about death?