Have you ever wondered what happens to our physical shell after we die? Many of us are often preoccupied with questions concerning what happens after death in terms of our non-physical self. Our consciousness or soul, if you prefer. Is there some sort of spiritual existence that continues after the flame of life has extinguished, and if so, where and what is it? Depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs, this afterlife may consist of reincarnation, paradise or eternal damnation.
Since thanatophobia, or the fear of death and dying takes up so much of our thoughts when thinking about death, not enough of us stop to think about what happens on the physical and biological level. What is death and what are the processes and steps that ensue?
When a human dies, there are seven main phases of death that occur in a specific and chronological order. In order to understand these processes, it is first important to have a better understanding of what death actually is. Rather than a precise moment in time, death is instead a process of chemical changes that occurs within the entirety of the body and touches all the cells and tissues of the organism. While we are alive, the body strives to maintain a state of homeostasis. Simply put, homeostasis is the totality of the body’s physiological processes and mechanisms that help to maintain a balanced equilibrium that keeps us alive. The absence of this homeostasis leads us to our demise and thus, the seven phases of death begins.
THE SEVEN PHASES OF DEATH
Phase 1: Pallor Mortis
Phase 2: Algor Mortis
Phase 3: Rigor Mortis
In order for a muscle to contract, firstly the brain sends a signal to said muscle. The body then releases calcium ions. These ions bind together with protein filaments in the muscle tissue causing them to pull onto each other and constrict or shorten. The body then uses ATP (adenosine triphosphate, or the body’s source of natural energy) to release these bonds thus releasing the contraction and relaxing the muscle.
Immediately after death, the body still contains a small reservoir of calcium ions which have not yet been depleted. These calcium ions continue to bind to the muscle filaments and contract. However, since we are dead and our source of ATP is depleted, the muscles remain contracted and stiff. These contractions are only broken after 24-36 hours once the muscles begin to decompose. Manually massaging the stiff muscles can also deconstruct rigor mortis. Embalmers often massage the corpse before injecting preservation fluids so that the liquid may flow smoothly throughout the arteries without the constricting muscles hindering their passage.
Phase 4: Livor mortis
Phase 5: Putrefaction
The fifth phase is the putrefaction phase. Putrefaction is the decomposition of proteins in the body which leads to the breaking down of tissues. Putrefaction touches all the tissues of the body including the organs. The organs will generally liquify whereas the skin may begin to detach and slip off the muscles like a glove. This process of decomposition is due to the digestion of organic material by means of the bacterial and fungal microorganisms. These microorganisms are perpetually present on the outside and inside of the human body.
Phase 6: Decomposition
Phase 7: Skeletonization
Skeletonization refers to the final stage of death. It is the phase in which the entirety of the body’s soft tissues and organs have either dried up or decomposed completely exposing the bare skeleton. When buried six feet under without a coffin, in ordinary soil, an unembalmed adult normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose fully. However, if sealed in a coffin, skeletonization may take many years longer.
The details of this gruesome reality may make some people’s stomach turn. Yet, it is the reality that all living organisms will nonetheless endure. It is important to understand that death is a natural and repetitive process rather than a taboo and macabre topic to be avoided. So next time you throw away that rotten piece of fruit on your countertop, stop to think that that fruit too has succumbed to its own individual process of death. All this to say that death is all around us. Death has existed since the beginning of time and will continue to exist indefinitely. If there is one thing that is certain about life is the fact that we will all die. Approaching the topic of death with a different perspective and examining the seven phases of death often makes one appreciate life much more.