What Happens When You Die?
Let's tackle the big question: what happens when you die?Secrets
They say that there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. And while we know how taxes work, how exactly does death work? What really happens to the body, mind, or even soul?! Let's investigate all things death, from curious talking cadavers, to the science behind people claiming to have seen the ‘other side’!
Before we being contemplating the afterlife and all that, let’s begin with things we can scientifically measure - the physical stuff that happens to the body, once one has ‘popped their clogs’.
When you shuffle off this mortal coil, like most dead people, your lungs most likely won’t be breathing air, and your heart will no longer be circulating blood. Without the fresh supplies of oxygenated blood, the brain will shut down and the body will enter a state known as primary flaccidity, where all muscles relax.
Limbs will become flexible, eyelids lose their tension, pupils dilate, and the jaw might even drop open – which is why most funeral homes will actually stitch the mouth shut! You know, just so grandma looks a little less zombie-like at her open casket funeral.
And with all muscles relaxing, that unfortunately includes the sphincters! These little guys are, shall we say, the gatekeepers for all your number 1s and 2s – meaning when you die, you might just poop yourself! Having said that, it might work out to be a “right place, right time” situation anyway.
Turns out, a surprising number of people actually die on the toilet due to the fact that terminal events, such as heart attacks or a clot on the lung, can give the sensation of needing to poop!
And, equally, excessive straining can raise blood pressure and trigger a heart attack in some rare cases. So, just know you’ve been warned – next time you need to go potty, it might just be the last.
You’ll be pleased to know, however, that there are some benefits to all that post-life muscle relaxation I mentioned! Those wrinkles you contemplate every morning in the mirror? Gone! According to funeral director, Jeff Jorgenson, the muscles that pull on your forehead relax at death, meaning that certain wrinkles in your face smooth themselves out!
Free Botox, anyone? There’s just one small catch! You probably won’t be able to admire it yourself.
Even stranger is the fact that dead folk can be pretty chatty once you get to know them! How? Well, just because your lungs aren’t breathing air anymore, doesn’t mean there isn’t any air left in them!
If pressure is applied to a cadaver, for example, if it’s moved or attempted to be resuscitated, air can actually travel up the windpipe, rattle the vocal cords, singing out a tunefully chilling moan, groan, or squeak!
But once you’ve quietened down, during this first hour after kicking the bucket, a process called pallor mortis will also get to work. With no capillary circulation, the skin becomes a washed-out, pale shade – which is especially observed in lighter-skinned people.
Shortly after this, a process called livor mortis begins to take effect. As blood is no longer being pumped around the body, gravity pulls it toward to the ground – causing what’s known as ‘pooling’.
Left undisturbed, the pooled blood will show a reddish to purple discoloration on the skin closest to the ground, kind of like a very big bruise! Which, sadly, might offset the attractiveness of your free Botox. But whoever said death was pretty?
Typically, at around three hours after death, everyone’s favorite process, rigor mortis, arrives to the party! Given that, upon death, the body’s oxygen and energy supply cycle grinds to a permanent halt, so does the production of adenosine triphosphate, a compound muscles use as a fuel source.
As a result, the protein filaments in the muscles become locked in place, which results in the body becoming rock-hard like a statue. Well, not ‘Ancient Greek sculpture’ levels of rock-hard, but pretty stiff!
While these biochemical changes are occurring, muscles in the face and body might still contract and twitch for several hours, so if the dearly departed is doing a little jig, don’t be too alarmed!
Rigor mortis typically begins in the face, and gradually moves down to the torso, arms, legs, and arrives at the fingers and toes last. And let’s just say that men can get an extra serving of rigor mortis down in the nether regions – pitching one final tent, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, subject to ambient temperature and individual patient factors, this stiff-bodied state can last around two days. But sure enough, the body will begin to loosen up again, as muscle tissues break down and decay, as the cells that make them up die from the lack of replenished energy.
The professionals call this secondary flaccidity, and over a period of three days rigor mortis will reverse in the direction from whence it came – beginning with loosening up the fingers and toes and finishing at the face.
This stiffness can be pretty creepy, but what’s even creepier? Something called Tache Noire can occur. Essentially, if the eyes are left open as the body relaxes, they can dry out and turn a ghoulish shade of black!
This is a natural effect of the drying of the cornea when constantly exposed to air, but due to the creepy appearance of expired people with their eyes open – particularly if the eyes have gone black – morticians routinely use eye caps.
These handy little tools are dimpled on the outside and slot underneath the eyelid, keeping the eyes firmly, and safely, shut – because nobody needs to see that!
Even more gross, legend would have it that dead people can even grow hair and nails. Well, let's clear this rumor up, as it’s not exactly true! When you die, your skin becomes dehydrated and shrivels. As the skin retracts, the nails and hair appear to be getting longer, giving the illusion of growth.
What’s more, a cadaver’s hair and nails often begin to fall out after about a month. So, yeah, at this point post-check-out, there’s very little hope of holding onto your good looks.
As you might’ve guessed, all this dying certainly doesn’t smell like a fresh meadow either. Around two to three days in, internal organs will begin to decay and produce two chemicals: putrescine and cadaverine – and trust me, no amount of Chanel No.5 will cover the smell of these bad boys!
Our brains are wired up to get us as far away as possible from objects emitting these scents of rotten flesh, just in case whatever caused the source of the aroma to go on their permanent vacation might still be around to send us on one of our own.
Therefore, our brains are wired to make putrescine and cadaverine pretty much the worst thing you can experience smelling.
Even tastier, as usually-helpful bacteria in the gut can no longer be maintained, it reproduces and feeds on the body – giving off waste gas that cause the torso and limbs to bloat like a balloon.
If this bloating gets out of hand, and the organs liquify, the gases can very occasionally build up to such pressures that they erupt violently out of the nearest available exit. Sometimes this even leads to eyeballs popping from their sockets. Gross, but we all know this is the stuff you came to read, right?!
As the body continues to break down and release pungent chemicals, it sends out a signal to the flies of the world, who will so kindly lay their eggs in and around the body’s entrances! These cute little eggs hatch into handsome little maggots and get feasting on everything.
Soon it becomes something of a banquet, as – if the body is exposed to the elements – other members of the animal kingdom, like birds, beetles, and scavengers, start to tuck in too! Once all these critters have eaten up, there’s only one thing left: skeletonization.
Once the soft tissue is fully lost, wind, rain, erosion, and abrasion do their thing, and over the next coming months, or even years, the bones and their joints detach from one another, leaving nothing but a pile of bones behind.
And even they won’t last forever. Depending on conditions, over the course of anywhere from a decade to hundreds of years, the soft collagen inside bones deteriorates, meaning they’ll eventually crack and break down into nothing but dust.
Now of course that’s all if the body is just left out in the open, but how does the body fair inside a coffin? Well, while it will last longer, rest assured flies, their baby maggots, and other soil-dwelling creatures, such as worms, ants, and bacteria, will find a way to tuck into your delicious rotting body.
So, eventually, you’re going to decay to your constituent minerals either way, to fertilize the soil, or fill some tiny life-form’s little belly - reaching your final form as the energy that tiny creature uses to move around and keep itself alive. So, as far as any semblance of your physical body’s concerned, that’s pretty much the end! Or is it?
The Big Mystery
Most people have their individual beliefs about what happens after death. Some merely believe that nothing happens – that the biological parts of our bodies that facilitate the production of our senses, and what most of us perceive as consciousness, no longer exist to function, and therefore, we cannot think or feel beyond their disintegration.
For others, though, there’s much more hope pinned onto the idea of afterlife. So, let’s see what some of them have to say on the matter, before we hold a scientific magnifying glass up to the afterlife.
Christian folk believe that all humans possess a soul. According to Christians, the soul is essentially a spiritual essence that fills the symbiotic vessel of the human body. It’s what many people regard as the very core of themselves – something supernatural that remains immeasurable by science!
When their physical bodies die, Christians believe their soul is brought to the stand, where God will weigh up all the good and bad it has done during its time on earth. For most good Christians, knocking on Heaven’s Door is what they strive for.
And despite what 80’s pop sensation Belinda Carlisle might tell you, Heaven is not a place on earth – more of a non-physical state of being where the righteous Christians can just chill with their main man God and his angels.
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible says that in Heaven Christians will have resurrected bodies – meaning they won’t be floating around with feathered wings, as depicted in pop culture.
On the flipside, if you’re a not-so-righteous fellow, you might find yourself on a Highway to Hell, for an eternity in a dark underworld of eternal fire, pain, and suffering.
So, for members of the Jesus team, there’s definitely something for you to experience after you get returned to sender – but whether it’s infinitely pleasant or atrocious rests on how you spend your time among the living!
Those who follow Islam, meanwhile, live their lives according to the Qur’an and believe that God or Allah decides how long they shall live. Upon their death, Allah will consider both their good and bad deeds, with help from two angels who record all human’s rights and wrongs – and when a Muslim dies, you can bet these angels are gonna spill the tea.
If a Muslim has lived according to the rules of the holy book, they will be rewarded with an all-inclusive eternity in Heaven (or Jannah) a ‘garden of bliss’ where people lie on jeweled couches, remain forever young, and drink from fountains of wine, while being served only the finest of foods!
The alternative option is Hell, or Jahannam; a place filled with smoke, fire and boiling water, where people will rage with thirst and suffer forever. And Allah won’t be giving second chances; so, if this version of heaven and hell is what you choose to believe happens in the hereafter, I strongly suggest following the rules of the Qur’an!
For those who follow Hinduism, meanwhile, most carry the belief that existence is a constant cycle of death and rebirth, known as Samsara. Once the body is worn out, the person’s soul, or rather their atman, moves on to a new body.
In each lifetime, the atman can choose to do good or bad, but Karma will catch up either way, ensuring the atman is respectively rewarded or punished in the following lifetime. If a person continually fails to redeem themselves in each life, their atman might be reborn into an animal.
And should Hindus persist in doing good deeds and living according to sacred teachings throughout all their reincarnations, it will eventually lead to a state of emancipation, known as Moksha.
It is at this point that their atman will be released from the rebirth cycle and will reach a point totally detached from the material atoms of the universe, a state of total freedom, and constant bliss. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?
Of course, like the other religions I’ve mentioned, and countless others in our world, these ideas are largely founded on faith and belief. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with faith, as it can provide a huge amount of meaning to a person – but is there anything about the afterlife we can measure with solid, repeatable science?
Here's The Science
So, what if you’re not religious? Although scientists are yet to comprehensively conclude what actually happens after death to your consciousness, or even your spirit - if such a thing exists - people who have experienced cardiac arrest may be able to help us out.
Cardiac arrest is essentially the abrupt loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness. Without the circulation of blood or oxygen, you are initially considered clinically dead, which means you can sometimes still be revived.
Not to be confused with biological death – where cells in your heart, brain and other organs die en-masse and completely stop functioning from an extended lack of oxygen – and which is, to science’s knowledge, irreversible.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Southampton in England studied the experiences of over 2,000 cardiac arrest patients and the results were intriguing. Of those who’d fortunately survived and could explain their near-death experiences, a shocking 39% reported a feeling of semi-awareness while being clinically dead.
This awareness was described as a feeling of peacefulness and a sensation of time becoming slower or – sometimes - faster, but with no ability to explicitly recall any specific events within that time.
A separate 9% of the patients, meanwhile, all claimed to have experienced things that are typically associated with near-death experiences: either the entire timeline of their life flashing before their eyes, or lights at the end of the tunnel.
A separate 46% reported a broad range of experiences that didn’t align with the usual expectations, some of which -eerily – included vaguely fearful experiences of being tormented or punished.
Strangest of all, 2% of patients reported experiencing near-full awareness, where they explicitly recalled seeing and hearing verified events that had indeed been occurring around them, despite being clinically dead!
While it’s true that science may never know what happens to our minds when we die, can it at least partially explain these near-death experiences?
Well, neuroscientist, Christof Koch, suggests that during cardiac arrest, a patient should not be considered dead as they can often still be resuscitated. When blood and oxygen are prevented from reaching the brain, the cardiac arrest patient will initially faint, but the brain continues exhibiting electrical activity.
So, in a similar vein to dreaming, Christof theorizes that the brain will create its own narrative based on the individual’s experiences and cultural expectations. And with pop culture often evoking an image of seeing ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’, it’s possible some people who experience cardiac arrest are merely half-dreaming the thing they expect to encounter on the brink of their demise.
Alternatively, and here’s where it really gets interesting, that ‘light tunnel’ might actually have something to do with the physiology of our eyes. With reduced blood flow to the retina during cardiac arrest, vision loss occurs at the periphery of the eye first.
So, this ‘tunnel’ might actually just be vision gradually decreasing from the edges inward. As the increasingly encroaching edges become increasingly darker, the central, remaining visible light becomes brighter and brighter by contrast, forming a tunnel until nothingness.
However, scientists assert that the brain typically shuts down 20 to 30 seconds after the heart has stopped. This suggests that some of the visions of near-death experiences reported by those who undergo cardiac arrest for longer periods may simply be tricks of the mind.
Specifically, it’s likely that patients recall a cognitive experience that actually happened just before their clinical death – and when they black out and eventually regain consciousness, they misremember this fainting dream as happening while they were clinically dead.
Of course, as yet, there’s no prevailing answers as to what’s really going on in these peculiar spaces between life and death, nor what happens to the thinking parts of ourselves after we leave the world behind.
But in today’s tech-consumed world, there is one way in which we definitely continue to exist after we take the big dirt nap. With most people harboring multiple email subscriptions and social media accounts, our online presence is the one thing that may continue to linger post-mortem.
While in most situations, a person’s inbox will just continue to overflow, it is possible for the family to request that the account be deleted, should they provide personal details and proof of death.
Sites, such as Facebook, even allow loved ones to take control of their dearly beloved’s page – either permanently deleting the account or converting it into, what Facebook calls, a memorial page.
This is essentially a digital space for friends and family to look back on the memories of whoever has had their subscription to life magazine permanently canceled. And in that sense, a person’s legacy is able to transcend, as photos and videos illustrate their life far beyond the parameters of a gravestone.
But that’s just the thing about death; no matter how many stories we hear from people, science, or even religion, nobody, except for the dead, can truly know what happens when you die… There’s only one thing for certain – it’s coming, for all of us! We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?