The human body is such a complex and interesting series of energy that gives and takes. 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.
PLEASE NOTE: some of the entries on this top 10 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. [Image: Lord Byron on his Death-bed; Joseph Denis Odevaere]
9 Cheynes-Stokes Respiration
This 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. [Image: By the Deathbed; Edvard Munch]
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). [Image: Young woman on her death bed; Anonymous, Flemish School]
7 Rigor Mortis
Everyone 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. [Image: At the death bed; Samal Joensen Mikines]
6 Livor Mortis
Livor 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. [Image: Ria Munk on her Deathbed; Gustav Klimt]
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. [Image: Death of Pierrot; Aubrey Beardsley]
4 Tache Noire
Tache 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. [Image: The Death Bed; Kathleen Walne]
3 Purge Fluid
This 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. [Image: Puppet on his Death Bed]
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 examiners. [Image: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill; Pieter Claesz]
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. [Image: Danse Macabre; Bernt Notke]
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