When an organism dies, the most important, energy-intensive cells follow first. Goodbye, neurons. But more peripheral cells keep doing their jobs for days or even weeks, depending on factors like temperature and decay. In one 2015 study, researchers were able to coax live cell cultures from goat ears a whopping 41 days after the goats were slaughtered. They got these cells from fibroblasts, which make up connective tissue and are relatively low-energy. Keeping them alive for 41 days required nothing more than normal refrigeration. “Organismal death has no meaning at the cellular level,” Ellis says.
Not only do cells survive for a while after an organism dies, they may actually fight to live. The activity of some genes increases after death, as cells apparently sense that something has gone horribly wrong. It’s like an astronaut in deep space who suddenly gets silence on the radio and frantically beams signals home to Earth, unaware that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out everything she holds dear.