The human body is such a complex and interesting series of energy give and take. But what happens when an individual’s health deteriorates and, finally, they come face-to-face with death itself? I am of the opinion that in order to understand how the body runs and operates, it is essential to know how the body operates when it’s not, well… operating. What happens when cells no longer divide and ATP (energy carriers in cells) is no longer available? Even the moments up until the final breath give insight into abnormal functioning of a human body. This list will show you, in rough order, 10 significant changes in the human body that occur peri (during) and post mortem. Memento Mori. PLEASE NOTE: some of the entries on this list may be disturbing or upsetting – but care has been taken to ensure that no gruesome images appear.
10. Death Rattle:
The death rattle is a common term
used in the hospital to describe the chilling sound made by an
individual very near death. It occurs after loss of the cough reflex and
loss of the ability to swallow. This causes an excess accumulation of
saliva in the throat and lungs. Although it rarely causes pain to the
patient, family members often find the sound unsettling and disturbing.
Anyone who has ever heard the unsettling death rattle will never forget
the way it sounded. Suctioning, anti-pain and anti-anxiety medications
are normally administered to alleviate the patient’s discomfort, and to
allow the unavoidable dying process to proceed.
9. Cheynes-Stokes Respiration:
is a very abnormal breathing pattern characterized by very rapid
breathing and then periods of no breathing (apnea). In short terms, the
heart is weak and overworked and this makes the body want to
hyperventilate (breathe abnormally fast) and, subsequently, there is no
more energy to breathe for a period of time (apnea). This means the
organs are getting less blood and, thus, less oxygen. Without oxygen,
the cells in the organs begin to die, then the organs die and finally
the individual dies. Although it can also occur in people with heart
failure, or other respiratory disorder, it is usually present at a time
of impending death.
Upon death, every muscle
in the human body will cease to receive energy in the form of ATP. As a
result, the bowels will relax and a bowel movement can occur. This is
especially true in individuals who have eaten a meal in the period
shortly before their time of death. Another factor contributing to post
mortem defecation is how quickly an individual’s body normally digests
food. It is found more often in the unexpected deaths of, otherwise,
healthy individuals. Patients in hospice centers may not have an
appetite for several days before death and, thus, will probably not
defecate upon their death beds (no pun intended).
7. Rigor Mortis:
has either heard of rigor mortis, or has found a dead pet with rigor
mortis. The most well-known post-mortem occurrence is rigor mortis, or
“stiffness of death.” After death, the body is unable to break the bond
that causes a contraction – causing a perpetual state of contraction. It
works in a head-to-toe fashion. In most cases, rigor mortis begins
within 1-3 hours after death, and it begins to pass after 24 hours. Even
the eyelids get rigor mortis, so if they are not closed shut after
death, eye caps (a big round lens with spiky protrusions) are used to
get them open. Since it affects all the muscles, it can make the heart
appear larger than normal, cause semen to be released post mortem, and
can cause a goose bump appearance on the corpse.
6. Livor Mortis:
mortis is the purple-red coloration that appears when blood sinks to
the dependent portions of the body. It does not occur, however, in areas
of the body touching the ground, or that are receiving pressure because
the capillaries are compressed – this is similar to pressing your
finger on your arm for a couple of seconds and observing your
fingerprint in white for about three seconds. This concept helps
coroners determine the position of death. Its presence or absence can
also help coroners to determine an approximate time of death. It
generally begins 1-2 hours after death and becomes permanent or “fixed”
within 6-12 hours.
5. Algor Mortis:
Also known as the “death
chill;” it is the reduction in body temperature that occurs following
death. Cooling takes place only if the ambient temperature is cooler
than the body temperature at the time of death. The rate of cooling
varies: body location (shade versus sun), clothing and the temperature
of the room they die in. A cold bathroom floor would cause much quicker
cooling than would be found in someone who dies outside in 95 degree
weather. Obese people lose heat slower than infants, who cool rather
quickly. If the time of death is within 24 hours, then this is a helpful
tool. Otherwise, it takes the body about 24 hours to completely cool,
or become the same temperature as its environment.
4. Tache Noire:
noire, literally meaning “black spot,” is a dark, reddish brown strip
that will form horizontally across the eye ball. During life the eye
balls are kept moist by blinking, but sometimes they are no longer
protected upon death. Therefore, tache noire will occur in individuals
whose eyelids are not closed post mortem. Similarly, other mucous
membranes like the tongue will darken after prolonged air exposure to
the normally moist tissue. If the individual drowned, or the body was
found in water, the tache noire would not be present. The eye balls have
to be exposed to air for it to occur.
3. Purge Fluid:
is a putrid, reddish-brown fluid with a very foul smell that can emerge
from the oral and nasal passages. It is easily mistaken as a brain
injury, assault or just simple blood. It emerges as a result of the
gases forming throughout the body. When gas formation occurs in the
stomach and intestines, the abdomen can become tense and distended.
Subsequently, the increase in abdominal pressure causes a purge of foul,
blood-tinged fluid from the mouth, vagina and nose. A similar
feces-mixed fluid will also emerge from the rectum. Purge fluid can be
useful in determining the time of death. If an individual dies in a
hotter climate, like Texas or Mexico, the purge fluid can be seen in
less than 24 hours.
Degloving is the actual
removal of the body’s skin post mortem. Most notably, the fingers and
nails detach with sheets of skin thick enough to form “gloves” or
“socks” as some people call them. It occurs as a result of the gaseous
swelling of the neck, trunk and limbs, that become so swollen that one
can mistake it for gross obesity. When the putrid gases are under a
substantial amount of pressure, they flee from the body and the entire
mass of decaying soft tissues disintegrates. The word “degloving” is an
appropriate term because you can actually remove the skin of the hands
like you would remove a glove from your own hand. Though, interestingly
enough, the underlying skin can still provide a fingerprint for the
Maceration means “to soften by
soaking” in Latin. It refers to infants that die in utero, between the
sixth and the ninth month of pregnancy. Their decomposition is slightly
different due to prolonged exposure or “soaking” in the amniotic fluid.
They resemble a corpse soaked in water. The infant’s skin will look like
scalding or “boiling burns” due to their skin slipping off the body.
Serosanguineous fluid-filled blebs form on the infant, and the bones are
very soft and flexible. If the child is kept in utero for several days,
the skull collapses and the brain will begin liquefying. If the infant
is removed from the uterus within 24 hours after they die, and air
enters their body, putrefaction occurs instead of maceration.