What Happens To Your Body When You Die - Hour By Hour? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
What REALLY happens when you die?? Join us... and find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at EXACTLY what happens when you die! It's one of the greatest questions in all of science, but actually we know A LOT about what the body goes through once you pass away... some of it's quite gory, but all of it's interesting!

What Happens To Your Body When You Die Hour By Hour

Every human body is distinct, while the environments in which the body dies can vary as well. It means that while some bodies might decompose within weeks or months, others can last for thousands of years. The Chinese noblewoman Lady Cheng, also known as Lady Dai, for example, was buried in an airtight set of coffins underground, and is therefore incredibly well-preserved today despite being over 2,000 years old. Across a wide range of circumstances then, what actually happens to a cadaver is well documented.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what happens to your body when you die, hour by hour.

Humankind has thought about death for thousands of years. Being conscious allows humans to acknowledge the fact that we are all individual people who live different lives, and that one day we will inevitably die. This realization is a powerful one, and may have a much larger impact on our everyday live than we tend to think. According to Terror Management Theory (or TMT), many factors in a person’s life, including the groups that people choose to associate with and belong to, are adopted in order to protect themselves from the fear of death. So the issue is at the very heart of our existence. But what does it mean to die in the first place? From a medical perspective, this question isn’t necessarily easy to answer. Even today, not everyone agrees with what constitutes death. But by studying what happens to our physical bodies in the moments that follow the end of a life, scientists can learn more.

For much of history, death was decided through the most obvious measure of cardiopulmonary activity, or heart and lung function. If a person was no longer breathing and they didn’t have a pulse, they were declared dead on the spot. Medical technology has come a long way since then, however, and death has since become separated from those measures. People can now undergo heart and lung transplants and even survive using artificial machines that perform these functions for them, so the line isn’t as clear cut. Research has also shown that the human brain continues to function for up to ten minutes after death, raising the question: if your brain is still active, can you really be considered dead? Today, medical professionals still use the cardiopulmonary measure, but they also declare someone dead if their brain has ceased to function. Both of these can have complicating factors. Even when the heart has stopped, a person can sometimes still be resuscitated… and paramedics will try to save them unless there are signs of irreversible death. After someone has been declared legally dead, though, either by cardiopulmonary measures or total brain failure, many different processes begin to occur around the same time.

At the very moment of death all of the muscles in the body relax, giving rise to a ragdoll-like figure - once alive but now passed on - with highly flexible limbs. This relaxation also spreads to the bladder and bowels, meaning any urine and feces gets released. The process of autolysis, or self-digestion, begins minutes after death. This is when the body essentially dissolves until only a skeleton remains. It happens because when cells become deprived of oxygen, as they do when the heart stops beating, chemical reactions release toxic byproducts that increase the acidity of cells… and enzymes quickly begin to digest cell membranes.

Next, about 15 minutes after blood circulation ends, the skin turns pale during a process called Pallor mortis. This is perhaps one of the more infamous stages of death. The temperature of the corpse then begins to cool by one or two degrees Fahrenheit per hour until it equalizes with the environment in what’s known as Algor mortis.

Since the heart has stopped pumping, the blood in the veins stops circulating and is pulled down by gravity. It then gathers in the areas of the body that are closest to the ground, giving the skin a purplish discoloration similar to bruising while the rest of the corpse remains pale. A couple of hours after death, the bacteria that are always present in the gut begin to actively dissolve it, as well. These bacteria are usually kept in check by the immune system, but since it has shut down, the bacteria thrive. As they spread, they begin digesting various other organs in the body, too, eventually reaching the brain. Circumstances differ, but it takes around 60 hours for the bacteria to travel all around the body.

Between two to six hours after death, however, the proteins that allow for muscle movement develop a chemical bridge that locks them in place, giving the corpse its signature stiffness. This process is called Rigor mortis. Rigor mortis will continue to spread across the body from this point, reaching its peak tightness around 12 hours after death. Here, the fingers may curl into strange positions and the limbs can be difficult to move. Eyelids will also freeze in position, and this may be why coins were customarily placed on the eyes of the recently deceased, in days gone by. Afterwards, the body will again become limp in a process known as Secondary flaccidity as muscle tissue starts to decay. Rigor mortis doesn’t last forever.

More broadly, the rate of decomposition (or of any of these processes) is affected to an extreme degree by environmental conditions. The decomposition process of an average human body can take anywhere from weeks to years depending on its surroundings. In a hot environment it will be accelerated, and in cold ones it will be slowed or even stopped almost entirely. The speed of decay also depends heavily on if insects have access to the cadaver.

Meanwhile, as the various organs and tissue continue to be dissolved from the inside by bacteria, noxious gasses are released that give deceased bodies a “smell” of death. These gasses can become trapped and build up to the point where sometimes (although rarely) a deceased body actually explodes. This is the bloating process, and it’s not uncommon for cadavers to double in size during this time. After several weeks of decomposition, the nails and teeth will begin to fall out. And after about a month the body starts to liquify. Once the organs have been dissolved, they seep out of orifices in the form of liquid during the sequence of Active decay.

How long it takes for all of the skin and flesh of a body to fall off varies heavily. Out in nature, it can be anywhere between three weeks to several years before all that’s left is a skeleton. At this point the bones will either be eaten by scavengers (if any are present) or dissolve into the ground over time. It can take around 20 years for bones to be recycled back into the Earth, though, finally erasing the last traces of the body that once was. Of course, a body in a coffin takes longer to decay than one left out in the wilderness. It depends a lot on the material used for the burial. Unlike a metal casket, a wooden coffin will rot and collapse, leading to faster decomposition. However, even an embalmed corpse in a sealed metal coffin will likely still become a skeleton after several decades.

Unlike the spiritual aspects of what happens when we die, the physical aspects are then very well known. The different stages of decomposition are documented and studied as well as the different types of bacteria, insects, and the processes that play a role in recycling the human body after death. However, what happens to our consciousness during this time is still something of a mystery. Scientists know that, to some extent, the brain continues to fire and function after death, for a short time… but what exactly that person is experiencing during those moments is still largely unknown. As per one of the most well known and popular theories, they could be reliving their life in flashes of memory. Our brains may even be programmed to run a certain sequence for us when we are dying to prepare us for our transition into whatever comes next. But, in terms of the physical body only, that’s what happens when you die, hour by hour.