By Walter Sorochan Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted: April 25, 2022

We are all born, we live an active life and eventually die. This is true life cycle of all living things. But in most cultures, people do not want to talk about death. They do not face the reality that they will die. Death is a personal experience and usually is an unpleasant event.  Wiki: Death

deathcorn plantLife cycle: All living things have a life cycle: they are born, live an active life, have offspring or seeds and then die. For example, the corn plant life cycle begins with a seed that sprouts into a plant that bears corn cob. When the corn plant finishes producing corn seeds, then the plant withers and dies. This is a similar life cycle of all organisms.

When death happens, our bodies stop functioning the way they’re supposed to. Almost all animals eventually die from biological aging, known in life sciences as "senescence". In industrialized countries – such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany – the rate approaches 90% ; that is, nearly nine out of ten of all deaths are related to senescence. Wiki: Death

But there is more to dying from old age! Research says that we can die from the lack of will to live. Ratner: die from lack of will to live 2018 This may be related to having the desire to live or hoping to live.

What is death? Death is more of a process than a single event. It implies a slow shift from one physical state to another. We all know what it means to die on a practical level, but what does modern medicine have to say? “Clinical” death is defined as the ceasing of all “vital functions” of your organs, including your heart, your brain, and your lungs. Prior to the 1980s, the legal standard defined death as the absence of cardiopulmonary function including the loss of all vital signs.  However, as medical technology advanced, there were situations where one might lose brain function and maintain cardiopulmonary function. This led the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association in collaboration with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws to come together in the 1980s to expand the definition of death through the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). Under this law, death can be defined as the loss of cardiopulmonary function or the loss of brain function including the brainstem and cortex.

One of the challenges in defining death is distinguishing it from life. Determining when death has occurred is difficult, as cessation of life functions does not occur at the same time for all organs and body tissues. This makes drawing precise conceptual boundaries between life and death is difficult, as there is little consensus on how to define life. Since our bodies aren't designed to last forever, sometimes the body's systems just simply wear out.

So what happens to the body when you die? Your oxygen depletes, slowing your circulation, making your skin mottle and your extremities turn cold; it gets harder to breathe, and what breathing you are able to do often becomes noisy (although for what it’s worth, the “death rattle" as it’s called, isn’t thought to be painful); and when your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation stop, clinical death occurs. Biological death follows a few minutes later as your  brain cells die from the lack of oxygen.

How do most persons die? Although many die form accidents, drug/alcohol abuse and chronic diseases, most persons die of old age. Death is further complicated when many often die from being addicted to Standard American Diet [SAD] of cheeseburgers, French fries, coca-cola, processed and junk foods that cause chronic disease illnesses, and hasten death. Death from SAD is not perceived to be linked to death and as such is a mind-set that contributes to lack of reality about the cause of death.

Dying patient ill in hospital

So what does death feel like? Well, a lot of it depends on exactly how you die. People who die from illness, for example, aren’t typically able to describe what they’re feeling. As Margaret Campbell, a decades-long palliative caregiver and nursing professor at Wayne State University, told The Atlantic in 2016, “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious to tell us what they’re experiencing.” As a result, much of the talk around death in these situations centers around what those observing it see, rather than what those experiencing it feel.

It is possible to define life in terms of consciousness. When consciousness ceases, an organism can be said to have died. One of the flaws in this approach is that there are many organisms that are alive but probably not conscious (for example, single-celled organisms). Another problem is in defining consciousness, which has many different definitions given by modern scientists, psychologists and philosophers.

In rare instances, people have “come back” to life after Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation [CPR] has stopped being performed; even if they’ve been pronounced dead for several minutes. For the majority of patients, this is a very rare phenomenon, described as the “the Lazarus phenomenon” that doesn’t last very long, and they die shortly after. However, one review of 38 cases showed that 35 per cent of the patients returned to life without serious neurological damage.  Adhiyaman: Lazarus phenomenon 2007

What happens to the body after death or Post-mortem?: Prahlow: Forensic pathology

This is a medical forensic description of death.

However, in real everyday language, this is what one will observe:

1. The corpse may poop its pants: Before rigor mortis sets in, all the body’s muscles relax. The result, of course, could be one final bowel movement as the sphincters relax and the stuff they’re holding in is released. This doesn’t actually happen very often, but if the bowels are full, it increases the likelihood that whatever is inside must come out.

2. Male corpses may get an erection: If the corpse is laying face down after death, it’s possible that gravity will pull the blood downward. For some men, the blood will pool in the pen*s, giving the corpse the appearance of an erection.

3. The body goes pale: For the majority of light-skinned people, the first sign of death is pallor mortis, or “paleness of death.” The body’s capillaries stop circulating blood and giving colour to its skin, which is noticeable as quickly as 15 to 25 minutes after death. It’s the first stage of a much longer process that occurs when the heart stops beati

4. The body goes pale: For the majority of light-skinned people, the first sign of death is pallor mortis, or “paleness of death.” The body’s capillaries stop circulating blood and giving colour to its skin, which is noticeable as quickly as 15 to 25 minutes after death. It’s the first stage of a much longer process that occurs when the heart stops beating.

5. Discoloration of the body:  After pallor mortis, the next thing that happens to your body after death is livor mortis, which refers to the discolouration of death. With the heart no longer beating, the body’s blood will start feeling the effect of gravity and moving toward the ground. Parts of the body closest to ground will get darker as the blood “sinks.”

6. The body gets cold:  Normally, human bodies have a resting temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and that’s because of the energy they expend keeping you alive and well. When the heart stops beating, the corpse will generally cool to the ambient temperature in a process known as algor mortis, or “the coldness of death.”

7. The body goes stiff:  After death, the body’s muscles will begin to harden in a process known as rigor mortis, or “stiffness of death.” The muscles stiffen because of a chemical reaction that occurs when the nervous system is no longer able to do its job. Rigor mortis happens two or three hours after death and lasts until the body starts to decay.

8. The body bloats:  Even after death, much of a body’s tissues and cells remain alive for a short time. As bacteria in the gut begin to break down parts of the body (rather than food), these tissues react in strange and smelly ways. Notably, the chemical reactions occurring within a corpse will cause the abdomen to bloat.

9.The eyes bulge out of their sockets:  As bacteria and enzymes continue to work through the body and bloating continues to occur, the chemical reactions occurring within the body will eventually push the eyes out of their sockets. Of course, this type of thing doesn’t happen to corpses that have been embalmed and cared for after their death.

10. The tongue sticks out:  One consequence of the putrefaction process that occurs inside the body after death is that it will eventually force the body’s tongue to stick out. As the body tissues continue to decompose and chemical reactions inside the corpse continue to produce excess gasses, the tongue swells and pops out of the mouth.

11. Blisters appear on the body:  As putrefaction sets in and the body begins to decompose and liquefy, the corpse’s skin will develop liquid-filled blisters. The corpse has not contracted a skin disease. Rather, this is just nature at work. At this point, the skin is so fragile and dehydrated that any touch will probably cause it to fall off.

12. The body smells: The gas created by bodily decomposition won’t just cause the body to bloat, it also stinks. When characters in TV shows remark on the odour of a corpse, this is what they’re referring to. Bacteria feeds on the body tissues and organs, and this reaction creates a very smelly gas that eventually escapes the body.

13. The hair and fingernails appear to “grow”:  Without glucose, nerve cells that cause your fingernails and hair to grow stop working within a few minutes, meaning that they both stop growing as they would on a living person. However, the skin that surrounds your hair and fingernails begins to withdraw after death as it loses moisture, creating the illusion that stubble and fingernails keep growing after death.

14. Liquefaction of organs and tissue:  As the body decomposes, the living tissues and organs begin to liquefy and leak out of orifices. The liquefied tissues and organs are full of nutrients. If allowed to mingle with soil, the body can actually become the home for some interesting new plants.

15. Wrinkles disappear When someone dies, they immediately lose tension in their muscles, although rigor mortis will eventually reverse that for a time. The muscles that contract to create skin wrinkles will also relax in this period. Elderly bodies will lose their well-earned wrinkles and be left with smooth, seamless skin.

16. The body may moan:  If a body manages to combine the stiffening of muscles that occurs after death with the build-up of gasses from the decomposition of the digestive system, it could cause the body’s vocal chords to moan. This can be quite bewildering if you’ve never experienced it before, but it’s no surprise to those who regularly deal with corpses.

17.The body twitches:  After death, the muscle tissues continue to live for a little while. As the nervous system shuts down, the muscle reflexes may kick in, cause the body to twitch. It’s the same thing that occurs when the doctor taps you below the knee with a little hammer. It’s just the body’s reflexes at work.

Near-death-experiences: Very sick persons with high fever, recall floating in space above their body when asleep or unconscious. This phenomena is referreed to as near death experience. Such recall is explained by holography.  Barron: Brain functions after death 2018


Adhiyaman Vedamurthy, Sonja Adhiyaman, and Radha Sundaram, "The Lazarus phenomenon," J R Soc Med. , December, 2007; 100(12): 552–557.  Adhiyaman: Lazarus phenomenon 2007

Barron Jon, "Brain Functions Even After Death," Baseeline of Health, May 28, 2009  Barron: Brain functions after death 2018

Edmonds Molly, "How Dying Works," How stuff works.  Edmonds: How dying works

Pew Research center, "Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension" Pew Research Center, August 6, 2013.  Pew Research Ceenter: Living beyond 120 2013

Prahlow Joseph, "Forensic pathoogy: for police. death investigators, attorneys and forensic scientists," Humana Press,  Prahlow: Forensic pathology

Ratner Paul, "You can die simply by giving up the will to live, suggests new reseaech," Neuropsych, October 2, 2018.  Ratner: die from lacck of will to live 2018

Wikipedia, "Death."  Wiki: Death

Wikipedia, "Will to live." Wiki: Will to live.