The saying goes that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. And while some people may be able to avoid taxes, no one can avoid death. Mass-produced television hospital dramas often portray death as a serene drop-off in a heart-rate monitor. But there’s more that happens after you die. In fact, death is anything but serene. As soon as our heart stops beating – the first stage of death – the rest of our body starts deteriorating, albeit at different rates according to which stage decomposition is in. The rates at which our bodies break down depend on a variety of factors, including the environment, the circumstances of death, and the condition of our individual bodies.
In this list, we’ll explore what happens to the body once the heart stops beating – namely, what happens to our bodies when we die. A bit macabre but definitely fascinating, this list digs up some of the creepiest things that happen to our bodies after we die, including liquefaction of our internal organs and even instances of a recently-deceased pregnant woman giving birth to a live baby! To find out these and other things that happen to a decomposing body, check out this list of 25 Things That Happen to Your Body After You Die.
The heart stops beating and blood pools
The moment the heart stops beating is what doctors officially regard as the time of death. Once it stops, the rest of the body begins to die, albeit at different rates. With the heart no longer pumping, the first thing to happen in the process of death is that our blood stops flowing and pools wherever it is in our veins and arteries.
Our bodies change colors
With our blood suddenly non-mobile, our bodies begin to change color. Part of our bodies change to purplish-red or bluish-purple because the blood settles, due to gravity, in the lowest part of our bodies. Other parts turn deathly pale, since the blood (reduced hemoglobin, to be exact) is less concentrated or more drained in those areas.
Livor mortis helps forensics solve cases
Forensic investigators can use this phenomenon, known as livor mortis, to tell if a body has been moved since death because after death our blood congeals in our blood vessels, like a layer of fat which congeals on top of homemade stock or fried foods.
Algor mortis cools the body temperature
The second most popular form of mortis, algor mortis is next thing that happens to our bodies when we die. Known as “death chill”, our bodies lose their 98.6°F (37°C) warmth and slowly acclimate to the ambient room temperature, losing about 1.5°F (0.8°C) per hour.
Rigor mortis sets in
The better-known rigor mortis does not happen until a few hours after the moment of death. The process starts with the eyelids and neck muscles, followed by the entire body, stiffening up due to the depletion of ATP (adenosine triphosphate): the chemical responsible for relaxing muscle fibers after a contraction.
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Our bodies can twitch
In what must have scared earlier peoples and made them believe in the undead, our bodies can twitch and flex for hours after death. As muscle tissues die, they can contract. If enough contract, a visible muscle twitch or reflex can be seen, making it seem like the corpse is trying to regain consciousness. (To find out about the strangest human muscle to contract after death, check out #2.)
The skin on our face flattens out
In a bizarre perk for Botox-loving people everywhere, our faces get an immediate free-injection of Botox when we die. Well, not exactly Botox, but since our muscles are no longer contracting, the wrinkles on our faces mostly disappear.
Our hair and nails don't keep growing
A commonly-held myth states that our hair and nails continue growing after death. In fact, after our bodies die, our skin loses moisture, causing the skin on our entire body to shrink. The shrinkage exposes more of our nail cuticles and hair follicles, making them appear longer.
We void our bowels
Commonly joked about on sitcoms, this fact does actually happens to our bodies when we die. As rigor mortis is affecting most of the body, some parts (sphincters, more accurately) are being loosened. Since the brain keeps our bodies’ sphincters closed as part of its regulation of involuntary functions, when the brain shuts down, the sphincters open, leading a corpse to rid itself of urine or feces left in the body.
Our bodies secrete putrid odors
To no other object does “putrid” better apply than to a corpse. As our cells die, they release enzymes notifying local bacteria and fungi of the event. The bacteria and fungi rush in to begin decomposition, releasing noxious and putrid gases and odors.
Animals rush in to devour the body
Beyond the bacteria and fungi, blowflies and flesh flies are attracted to the sweet odors put out by a corpse. The flies lay eggs which hatch into maggots which start eating away at the dead flesh. Other creatures such as mites, ants, spiders, and vultures also descend upon the body.
Intrigued by what happens during and after death? Then you might be interested in these 25 Death Related Facts That Might Make You Glad To Be Alive.
Our bodies can moan
A post-mortem effect which scares even modern-day doctors and nurses, our bodies can make sounds after death! The combination of rigor mortis (including the vocal cord muscles) and gas secreted by bacteria in our guts can lead dead bodies to fart, squeak, and even moan.
The immune system shuts down
Our bacteria-rich guts become a breeding ground for a massive explosion of bacteria. Once our immune system shuts off, our gut bacteria begins digesting our intestines before spreading to other organs.
Our eyes bulge and tongues swell
The gases produced in our intestines and from our decomposing organs also make our eyes bulge from their sockets and our tongues swell up and extend out of the mouth.
We can explode
A few years ago, a video surfaced on the internet of a marine biologist poking a hole in a dead, beached whale to relieve the pressure from built-up gas. When he punctures the whale, an explosion of built-up gas shot out of the carcass with a loud boom. The same happens to our bodies. If the gas has nowhere to go, our bodies will bloat and eventually rupture.
Putrefaction sets in
As the body continues to break down, proteins decompose which lead to the breakdown of cell walls and the loss of cohesion between tissues. The process results in the liquefaction of most of our internal organs, turning our bodies into sloshing, gaseous, bulbous corpses.
Our skin nearly detaches
Though our skin loosens, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Once gases build up in the body, the loosening – or slippage – of our skin amplifies, detaching our skin from the bones and muscle underneath.
Our bodies may become covered in wax
After putrefaction, a very odd thing may happen in some bodies. A result of tissue-digesting bacteria, adipocere is a fatty, wax-like material which can develop if the body is surrounded by cold soil or water. Adipocere somewhat coats and preserves organs, leading to a slower decomposition.
Skin cells survive the longest
Though most cells will die after a few hours or a day or two, since skin cells have contact with the outside environment, they will pull all they can from the air through osmosis. This can keep skin cells alive for many days after the body begins to die.
Skin may turn leathery
If the body is uncovered or unclothed, the skin on our decomposing bodies will tighten up and become dry and leathery.
The body may be naturally mummified
Some bodies, if left in special eco-zones such as salt deserts or peat bogs, can naturally mummify. In such cases, decomposition does not have a strong effect and the body is surprisingly well-preserved.
Decaying bodies increase plant diversity
As our bodies decompose, they release a host of nutrients into the soil around them. The nutrient boost (and the boost from other decaying creatures which feed on the body) can increase the diversity of plant life and support a greater microbial biomass. This fact could prove useful for forensics investigators trying to locate bodies buried in shallow graves.
The last thing to decompose
Our bones are the last things to disappear after we die. Decades after bacteria, fungi, and other organisms begin breaking our bodies down, protein in bones eventually break down, leaving hydroxyapatite, a bone mineral which turns into dust. (Some cemeteries, such as the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, will take bodies out of their graves after a few years and put the boxed-up remains into a storage building.)
Male bodies can get erections after death
Remember how blood pools in the lowest parts of the body and how muscles can contract and flex after our bodies die? Well, some male bodies experience these factors in the nether-regions, causing the body to have an erection. Also due to muscle contractions, the dead body can have an ejaculation after death.
The single creepiest thing that happens to a body after death is known as “coffin birth”. Though extremely rare, if the right set of factors are in place, a dead woman’s body can give birth. If she is pregnant at the time of death, the build-up of intra-abdominal gases can push a fetus out through the relaxed vaginal opening.