What happens when we die

When we die, it is not like turning off a switch that shuts down everything all at once. Different parts of us fall apart at different times. In the March 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the process. (Subscription required)

When the organism dies, as signaled by the cessation of the heartbeat and respiration, not all body cells die simultaneously. The cells’ mitochondria swell, disabled proteins are not replaced, cell membranes start to leak. Macrophages and other phagocytes, which are not wholly dependent on the bloodstream for nutrients, last slightly longer and perhaps enjoy a brief orgy as they rush around devouring damaged cells, but they, too, soon succumb to the lack of oxygen from circulating blood. Bacteria from the gut find their way through leaky membranes to the rest of the body and begin the process of putrefaction.

The muscles, once so carefully sculpted and toned, stiffen when calcium from the dead body leaks into them, causing rigor mortis, then loosen when decomposition sets in. The organs we nurtured with supplements and superfoods abandon their appointed functions. The brain we have tamed with mindfulness exercises liquefies within minutes after the heart stops beating — according to the report of a forensic anthropologist, “It just pours out the ears and bubbles out the mouth.”

Sweet dreams!


  1. says

    The brain “liquifies within minutes” cannot be true, otherwise we would not have any preserved brains or autopsy results that include them, and embalming would have to mop up brain juice (this generally does not happen).

  2. kestrel says

    What happens when you die? Well, in the case of my neighbor, people call up your sister and ask to buy your stuff. 😀

  3. tomocar says

    My brother died a week ago but I don’t know if he died on Sunday or the following Thursday… He had a heart attack on Sunday, was found some time later, EMT’s zapped his heart into beating again but he was not breathing. At the hospital they put him on a ventilator and did “tests” for 3 days. On Wednesday the neurologist said he was brain dead. On Thursday (with consent of his wife and children) they pulled the plug and his heart stopped within 15 minutes. When did he “die” I wonder?

  4. Mano Singham says


    I am so sorry to hear your loss. Like most things in life (and death) it is hard to pinpoint an actual time and, compared to the actual loss in a sad situation like this, it seems like a minor consideration.

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