Death is an inevitable consequence of living, and someday we will all reach the end of the road, breath our final breath, and find ourselves six feet under. There are many theories on what happens afterwards and where we end up, but one thing science can tell us for sure, is what happens to our body. Does it just slowly decay away and become part of the earth, or do strange things continue to go on as if we were still alive? Most of us would rather not think about what happens to our body after we die. In most cultures, when someone dies, there is usually a traditional funeral so friends and family can say goodbye and get a sense of closure. A mortician will embalm the body as a way of slowing down the decomposition process, so that family members can remember their loved one as they once were.
For some, the end is less dignified; a murderer might leave his victim’s body at the scene of the crime or bury them in a shallow grave, or someone may die alone and isn’t found for days or weeks. When this happens and the body is discovered later, the decomposition process has already started making the mortician’s job much harder. So, what actually happens to our body when we die? Actually, the moment of death is not as instant as we may think. Even if you stop breathing and your heart ceases to beat, it is now understood that the brain goes on living for sometime after. A study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, who measured brain activity after death, observed electroencephalographic recordings up to 5 minutes after the body was declared dead.
In the hospital setting, doctors define death under a number of circumstances. These include no pulse, which indicates the heart has stopped beating, stopping breathing, the absence of reflexes, and pupils not reacting in response to a bright light. Just like you see in a TV crime show, when a detective walks up and shines a torch in the eyes of dead person, to be sure they’re gone. The definition of brain death includes the neurological criteria of unresponsiveness, an absence of brainstem reflexes, and an inability to breathe without a ventilator. So, when the lights are finally out, and you are actually gone, what happens to the body? Let’s first look at from death to 12 hours after death.
- Hour 1
At the moment of death, all of the muscles in the body relax. This state is called primary flaccidity. The mouth often falls open, the eyelids relax, the pupils dilate, and the body is flexible. If an individual averages 80 beats per minute, that’s 4,800 beats per hour, 115,200 beats per day, and more than 42 million per year, which calculates to roughly 3 billion if you live to age 72.
Within minutes of the heart stopping, the blood stops flowing and a process called pallor mortis causes skin colour to lighten as blood drains from the smaller veins under the skin surface. The body begins to cool from its normal temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit (37° Celsius) and it continues to drop two degrees Celsius in the first hour; one degree each hour thereafter. As the muscles relax, urine and faeces are also released from the body.
- Hour 2 to 6
With no blood circulation, gravity begins to pull it to the areas of the body closest to the ground, a process known as livor mortis. After roughly 3 hours, chemical changes start to take place within the body’s cells, and all of the muscles begin to stiffen. This process is known as rigor mortis, and the first muscles to enter this state are the eyelids, jaw, and the neck. Rigor mortis continues to spread through the whole face, down through the chest, the arms, and eventually the fingers and toes.
In the old days, people would place coins on the eyelids. This tradition might also have originated from the desire to keep the eyes shut since rigor mortis affects the eyes soonest. However, there are other spiritually motivated theories, including one in Greek mythology where a god of the underworld was responsible for carrying the souls of the deceased over the river that separated life and death, so a coin was placed on the eyes in order to pay him for transportation.
- Hour 7 to 12
Though rigor mortis will continue for up to 12 hours, from 7 hours onwards the limbs of the corpse will be difficult to move. The knees and elbows will be slightly flexed, and fingers or toes may appear unusually crooked. How extreme these factors are will depend on the age, physical condition, and gender of the person, as well as the air temperature, and other external factors.
- Hour 12
After reaching maximum rigor mortis, the body begins to soften again as the process of rigor mortis wears off in the reverse order in which it occurred, so from the fingers and toes, to the arms and legs, and then up through the chest and to the neck and face. This is due to more chemical changes within the cells and internal tissue. This process occurs gradually and will continue over a period of one to three days, again influenced by external conditions such as temperature.
After about 48 hours, all of the muscles will again relax, reaching a state known as secondary flaccidity. But what if a body is left to decompose naturally for the next few days, weeks, or even months? After a few days, leaked enzymes begin producing many gases, which cause the body to expand, sometimes as large as twice the usual size. If the corpse is out in the open, insects will start to investigate, including flies that lay eggs, later to become maggots that eat the flesh. And microorganisms and bacteria also produce extremely unpleasant odours called putrefaction.
Next all the soft parts of the body, including organs, muscles, and skin, become liquefied, and when all of the soft tissue has decomposed, bone, hair, cartilage, and other hard areas of decay remain. All that will be left at the end is the skeleton, which will usually take eight to twelve years to decompose, depending on the loss of organic and inorganic components. The body decay timeline goes like this:
- 24 to 72 hours after death – the internal organs decompose
- 3-5 days after death – the body starts to bloat and blood-containing foam leaks from the mouth and nose
- 8-10 days after death – the body turns from green to red as the blood decomposes and the organs in the abdomen accumulate gas. Several weeks after death – nails and teeth fall out
- 1 month after death – the body starts to liquefy
So, your body may be around for a long time after death, even as long as 12 years for a brittle skeleton. But in some situations, these rules don’t apply and the body can last a lot longer. This was the case in Wilmslow, Cheshire, North West England, when on August 1st, 1984, when the preserved body of the so called Lindow Man was dug out of a peat bog by commercial peat-cutters. Peat is a type of soil that contains acids with pH levels similar to vinegar, which can conserve the human body in the same way fruit is preserved in a pickling jar.
It is thought that The Lindow Man met his death in the Lindow Moss, some time between 2 BC and 119 AD, in either the Iron Age or Romano-British period. So, he may have lived around the time of Jesus. His body has been so well preserved for 2,000 years that we know he was a healthy male who died in his mid-20s, was around 5 feet 7 inches tall (168 cm), and weighed 140 lbs. (63 kgs). Some people do not want to think about the changes in the body after death, whereas others wish to know all of the gruesome details. Everyone is different, and it is a very personal decision.