What Happens When You Die?
Here’s a look at some empirical, observable changes that the body goes through after death.
Alicia — mother of three — had lived a relatively healthy life. Extremely health-conscious, she would make routine visits to the gym and adhere to a strictly healthy vegetarian diet. Then, on one hot May afternoon, she suffered a massive heart attack at work and died on the spot. She was just 40. Today, Alicia lays on a mortician’s polished table underneath clean white sheets. She’s deathly cold, and her skin appears bruised — the subtle signs of bodily decomposition are already underway, leaving us with one nagging question: what happens after you die?
Is there even such a thing as life after death, or did madmen make up the notion to distract us from our cosmic inconsequentiality? But before we dive into the metaphysics of death, let us first identify some empirical, observable changes that the body goes through after death. Here’s an insight into the unobservable realm of after-death.
Back from the Dead
Although a somewhat nuanced phenomenon, biologically speaking, death is often condensed into one simple fact: stopping the heartbeat. However, thanks to advancements in the field of medical treatment, there have emerged two different kinds of death; clinical death, where there is no pulse for 4–6 minutes during which time one can be resuscitated, and biological death, where there’s no possibility of revival. Despite one’s spiritual beliefs about life after death, there’s no denying the fact that there have been people who have momentarily died and come back to life, documenting for others what it is like being on the other side.
Ernst Hemmingway — the infamous author of For Whom the Bell Tolls — once died momentarily while serving in the army for WWI and described the out of body experience as “I felt my soul or something come right out of my body like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner.” Contrarily, others have described their experiences as walking through light or feeling a sense of joy. Regardless of what may be true, the mere thought of a near-death experience is enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.
The Gradual Process of Decomposition
Now, onto the somewhat messy parts. Once a person has died, his muscles relax almost immediately. This means even the sphincter muscles will do so, i.e. anything that you had previously eaten would leave your system. Men may even ejaculate, while women after they have died, can even give birth. This is because the gases trapped in the abdomen will escape, pushing the baby out in a phenomenon known as “coffin birth”.
It is common knowledge that air will often escape the body after death, and while doing so, the mouth may make particular noises. These can sound eerily alive, as most nurses have reported hearing groans from dead bodies. Some bodies may even spasm or convulse, but this does not mean they have life left in them. The body often turns a deep purple in places where blood accumulates — a condition known as “livor mortis”. It is also common for the body to go cold due to the lack of heat exchange from blood flow. It will cool down until it reaches the temperature of the surroundings, going rigid in the process — a condition known as “algor mortis” or “death chill”. Eventually, the body will go extremely stiff within 2–6 hours — the state of “rigor mortis”.
Next comes the much dreaded and rather sickly state of bodily decomposition. Cells often break down when no oxygen reaches them, causing bacterial growth in the body. Ironically enough, a “dead” body is bursting with life, with tons of chemical reactions taking place each second in the process of autolysis — self-digestion. This is the part where the hair and nails seem to have grown, but that isn’t the case. If anything, this is because the skin may begin to move back, giving the illusion of growth. The appearance of blisters is also typical at this stage.
Eventually, you have the stage of putrid odor — putrefaction. This is the decaying state where the body starts to smell like what one person has described as “rotten, eggs, feces, and a used toilet left out for a month. It is unholy.” Now begins the liquefaction of organs in the body, except for bones, cartilage, and hair, which remain preserved as-is. Although decomposition is an unstoppable process, embalming may slow it down. This is mostly done in the case of open-casket funerals or when funerals have to be delayed due to certain circumstances. Here is how the timeline goes: in 8–10 years, the body is nothing but a pile of bones. In another 40 years, the bones have become part of the terra firma.
Philosophical Searches for the Answer
Now that the tangible process of decay and death has been mapped out, let us move on to the intangibles. As mentioned earlier, many people have long been obsessed with the idea of what exactly lies beyond the physical realm. One person on Reddit with a near-death experience describes the process as “It was just black emptiness. No thought, no consciousness, nothing”.
Unsurprisingly many philosophers have become so consumed by the question of what happens after death that some have even driven themselves to the brink of death itself, in a quest for answers. Such was the case of George Berkeley — an Irish philosopher — who wanted to find out what lay between heaven and the earth. He hung himself until he died in an attempt to find out (he did have a friend nearby to resuscitate him in case things went out of control). Despite his endeavors, the only answer Berkeley got to this puzzling dilemma was that hanging hurts the neck.
The question of the complex relationship between body and soul, earth and heaven, life and death still remains, with many philosophers posing different theories. Renes Descartes, for example, believed the soul to be distinguishable from the body, and when one dies, the soul lingers on. Friedrich Nietzche, on the other hand, had come up with the notion of eternal return — an endless cycle where all universal energy exists forever and keeps repeating itself. He claimed that a person keeps living the same life, over and over again, for eternity. This is echoed by the Buddhist belief in the “Wheel of Samsara”, where all souls are reborn after death, just not in the same form. Despite these divesting beliefs, one thing remains certain; as long as the nature of death remains truly unobservable, the question of what happens when you die will continue to remain unanswered.