Published: March 6, 2015 | K. Alicia Fetters
We’re hooked on murder- and death-obsessed shows like How to Get Away with Murder (who killed *******?!) and The Walking Dead (the zombie makeup is on-point), but most of us know very little about what actually happens to us when we die. After all, who really likes to think about kicking the can?
Some of the things that your body does in the hours after your final heartbeat are pretty cool (albeit in a slightly morbid way). Read on to learn what your body does when it doesn’t have relationship drama, workouts, or even breathing to deal with.
1. Your Hair and Nails Look Like They Grow
Have you heard that hair and nails keep growing in a casket? Well, they don’t, although it sure can look that way. Once you’ve kicked the bucket, your skin dries out, so it shrinks away from your cuticles and hair follicles, making your nails and hair appear longer than they were when you were alive and well, explains Robert D. Webster, author of Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked? Field Notes from a Funeral Director.
2. Your Body Gets Rock Hard
“Rigor mortis, or stiffening of the muscles after death, occurs from depletion of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical in our muscles necessary for relaxation of the muscle fibers after a contraction,” says Judy Melinek, M.D., a forensic pathologist and co-author of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. “ATP is produced metabolically by muscle cells and forces your muscle’s contractile units to disengage. When you stop breathing, your cells stop producing ATP. The microscopic fibers lock up, and your muscles stiffen.”
This sets into your face within two to four hours after death and hits your bigger muscle groups in about six to 12. “This is not like a tense muscle cramp after a marathon, this is epic hard,” says Jeff Jorgenson, director of eco-friendly funeral home Elemental Cremation and Burial in Seattle. After a day or two, those muscles start to degrade, and the body looks more relaxed.
3. You May Poop and Pee Your Pants
While rigor mortis sets in eventually, as soon as you die, every muscle in your body relaxes. That includes the sphincters that are in charge of keeping your bladder and bowels on lockdown, says Jorgenson. So if there is anything to expel, it could possibly seep out. “We aren’t talking about the biggest dump these people have ever taken, though,” he says. After all, the muscles that are responsible for forcefully pushing out the nasties are dead.
4. Your Wrinkles Disappear Immediately
Here’s one we actually like. Since your muscles lose all tension the moment you die, they stop pulling on your forehead, creating those worry lines you hate so much, says Jorgenson. Essentially, it’s the same reason Botox works. If you’re really old, saggy skin may still be an issue, but at least your forehead won’t be scrunched.
5. You May Moan and Groan
Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean there isn’t any air in your lungs. If someone applies some force to the chest, say, by moving or rolling your body, some air can come up your windpipe, rattle your vocal chords, and produce a moaning, groaning, sighing, or squeaking sound, says Jorgenson. While legends of bodies randomly blabbering are common, no sound is going to come out of your mouth unless something is pushing it out.
6. Some of Your Body Parts Keep Living
For a little while, at least. “As soon as you stop breathing and your heart stops beating, your organs start to die,” says Melinek. “However, all the cells don’t die immediately, and there is a window that allows for you to be resuscitated and remain intact—and an even larger window that allows for organ and tissue transplantation.” To donate organs such as your heart or lungs, something has to breathe for you until after the doctors have removed the organs, but you can donate tissues such as your corneas, skin, bone marrow, and even heart valves even 15 hours after your last breath.Learn how to become an organ donor.
7. Your Skin Gets Stained
You know how in TV shows, fake blood pools around bodies and looks a little like JELL-O? The same jellification happens to the blood in your body. Without your heart keeping the blood flowing, gravity takes control and it pools and thickens in whichever one of your body parts is the lowest, says Webster. If you’re sitting down, that might be your feet and ankles. Or if you’re lying on your back, your booty. If the blood stays there for 12 hours or longer, it will permanently discolor the skin.
8. Your Gut Bacteria Goes Bonkers
The bacteria in your gut—you know, the kind that aids in digestion, keeps the immune system in tip-top shape, and can make the difference between weight loss and weight gain—get full run of the place (a.k.a. your body) after you die. Bacteria from the gut and upper-respiratory tract will take advantage of their newfound freedom, enter the bloodstream, and use the blood vessels as a highway to travel to all parts of the body,” says Melinek. Hence why you never want to smell a dead person.
All gifs courtesy of giphy.com