What happens when you finally kick the bucket, so to speak? Despite our mostly science-grounded views on death these days, it seems many of us believe in life after it. It seems a lot of people do believe that after death we might be ensconced in some cloud-strewn paradise, or conversely, if we haven’t adhered to the ethics prescribed to us by our chosen religion or denomination of that religion, we might be faced with eternal hellfire and the prospect of grovelling to a bearded red man who hardly ever puts down his pitchfork. But let’s start with some empirical realism and what actually happens to the body when we die.
Physicians know your dead because the heart stops beating and there is no longer any electrical activity in your brain. Brain death equals dead, although machines can keep you going a little bit longer. You can also have what’s called a cardiac death, which means the heart stops beating and blood no longer flows through your body. The strange, even wonderful thing is, people that have suffered cardiac death but have been brought back to life have said they were aware of what was going on around them. Others have talked about walking towards a light in such a near death experience.
You can be brought back from what we call clinical death, but you only have a grace period of about 4-6 minutes. But let’s say you get to the light and pass through; this is what we call biological death – game over, the final whistle, dead as a dodo. This is where it gets kind of undignified, but what do you care, you’re dead. Once you’re definitely no longer with us, your muscles relax, and this means your sphincter will too, meaning that triple Whopper and large fires you had for lunch will spill out of you – the gas you have in you may also leak out and cause a stink. The same goes for the pee you’ve got in your bladder, so dying not surprisingly is a bit of a messy affair. And men, you might even ejaculate.
As for women, you may give birth after you have died if you were pregnant, which is something called “coffin birth”. It doesn’t happen often, though. Instead of pushing, it’s the gases in the abdomen that squeeze the newborn into the world. As the body gets rid of what is trapped inside, noises may be emitted from your mouth as air escapes. Nurses and people working close to dead bodies have regularly reported hearing very alive-sounding moans and groans coming from dead bodies. You may twitch, but this doesn’t mean there is life in you, these are just muscle contractions. You could also soon get an erection if you died lying on your stomach and the blood flowed down there.
All your blood will pool to a certain area of your body. This is called “livor mortis” and it’s the reason parts of you will have that dark purple colour you have seen on TV. These are the lovely things that can happen quite shortly after you go. With no blood flowing through your body, it will begin to cool down, known as “algor mortis”, or simply “death chill”. It will keep cooling until it is the same temperature as your surroundings. You will become stiff within about 2-6 hours, and this we call “rigor mortis”. This is because calcium is getting into your muscle cells. Cells break down without blood flow and this leads to bacteria growth, and that’s why you start to decompose.
You may look like your hair or your nails have grown, but that isn’t the case. What is happening is that your skin is receding, giving the impression of growth. The skin will loosen, too, and blisters will appear on the body. The next stage is putrefaction, when bacteria and microorganisms start feasting on you. You’ll soon start to stink as bad as anything you could have imagined while you were alive. One person described the smell as: “Rotten eggs, faeces, and a used toilet left out for a month x 1000. It is unholy.” Soon everything that is soft becomes liquefied, with things like bones, cartilage and hair remaining strong.
You’re already well on your way to decomposing by the time you are being put in the ground. But if embalmed and buried, decomposition could be a slow process. Left above ground, you’ll be a liquefied mess within about a month, feasted on by insects, maggots, plants, and animals. Underground, some experts say it might take 8-12 years before you are reduced to nothing but a skeleton. After around 50 years, even your bones will become part of the Earth. We should add the rate of decomposition depends on all manner of factors, too many to list here. But we think you get the picture. While some people report that their near-death experience was a scene to behold, that’s not always the case.
One person writing on Reddit said his experience was as follows: “It was just black emptiness. No thoughts, no consciousness, nothing.” Is there really something else? Irish empiricist philosopher George Berkeley was so hellbent on knowing what happens after death, or those moments during clinical death, that he actually hanged himself to the point of death, with a friend nearby ready to cut him down before he died. He believed there was something between heaven and Earth, perhaps what philosophers have called the ether. The story has become lore in philosophical circles, but it’s thought all Berkeley discovered was that hanging hurts your neck.
French philosopher Rene Descartes (Renee Day-cart) believed the soul was separate from the body, as many religions will tell you, and perhaps when we die something lingers on. Friedrich Nietzsche talked about the concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, meaning all existence or energy in the universe has forever and will forever keep repeating itself ad infinitum. You live the same life, again and again, forever. Now doesn’t that make you want to live well? Here we could make similarities to the Buddhist belief of the “Wheel of Samsara”, wherein all souls, lives, will begin a cycle again after death, except not the same exact life. Something we call reincarnation, which some people say is connected to what we sometimes call de ja vu.
Buddhists believe we can end this vicious cycle if we can become truly enlightened, therefore achieving nirvana. Or do we make our way to heaven after our bodies stop working, tipping our cap to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, hoping he won’t deny us entrance for stealing that candy bar when we went on a school trip to Niagara Falls? Will we be taken into paradise, a place replete with excellent foods and gorgeous maidens that make your dead knees go weak? Or will we simply seed the Earth, our souls nothing more than a worldly fancy that took our minds off our cosmic insignificance and the feeling of futility that we sometimes experience here on tera-firma?