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.”