What Happens to My Body Right After I Die?

A timeline of the physical processes that occur soon after death

half winter landscape symbolizing the changes in the body after death
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It is difficult to generalize how people will respond to the subject of death because each of us is unique, but we generally feel uncomfortable at the thought of our own mortality. What often underlies this uneasiness, however, is thinking about the process of dying and the fear of a prolonged or painful death, rather than the state of being dead.

Ironically, despite spending a lifetime walking around in the same body and doing our best to care for it, few seem to wonder what happens to their physical remains right after death occurs. Here is a timeline of the processes involved, assuming the deceased remains undisturbed, including the transition from primary flaccidity to secondary flaccidity

The Moment of Death

We often think of the moment of death as that time at which the heartbeat and breathing stop. We are learning, however, that death isn't instant. Our brains are now thought to continue to "work" for 10 minutes or so after we die, meaning that our brains may, in some way, be aware of our death. The research, however, is only very preliminary. 

In the hospital setting, there are a few requirements doctors use to define death. These include the absence of a pulse, the absence of breathing, the absence of reflexes, and the absence of pupillary constriction in response to a bright light. In an emergency setting, paramedics look for the 5 signs of irreversible death to determine when resuscitation not possible.

The definition of brain death (in contrast to "cardiac deaths" which are by far most common, includes the neurologic criteria of unresponsiveness, an absence of brainstem reflexes, and an inability to breathe without a ventilator. The diagnosis is only made for people on a ventilator and is used to declare a legal death, such as before organ donation.

After death is confirmed, the timeline of physical processes is as follows:

Hour 1 

At the moment of death, all of the muscles in the body relax, a state called primary flaccidity. Eyelids lose their tension, the pupils dilate, the jaw might fall open, and the body's joints and limbs are flexible. With the loss of tension in the muscles, the skin will sag, which can cause prominent joints and bones in the body, such as the jaw or hips, to become pronounced.

The human heart beats more than 2.5 billion times during the average human lifespan, circulating about 5.6 liters (6 quarts) of blood through the circulatory system. Within minutes of the heart-stopping, a process called pallor mortis causes the usually pinkish tone of a Caucasian person to grow pale as blood drains from the smaller veins in the skin.

At the same time, the body begins to cool from its normal temperature of 37° Celsius (98.6° Fahrenheit) until reaching the ambient temperature around it. Known as algor mortis or the "death chill," the decrease in body temperature follows a somewhat linear progression—two degrees Celsius in the first hour; one degree each hour thereafter. This enables forensic scientists to approximate the time of death if necessary, assuming the body hasn't completely cooled and depending upon other external factors, such as being indoors versus outside and humidity.

As muscles relax, sphincter tone diminishes, and urine and feces will pass.

Hours 2 to 6

Because the heart no longer pumps blood, gravity begins to pull it to the areas of the body closest to the ground (pooling), a process called livor mortis. If the body remains undisturbed long enough (several hours), the parts of the body nearest the ground can develop a reddish-purple discoloration (resembling a bruise) from the accumulating blood. Embalmers sometimes refer to this as the "postmortem stain."

Beginning approximately in the third hour after death, again depending upon numerous factors, chemical changes within the body's cells cause all of the muscles to begin stiffening. Known as rigor mortis, the first muscles affected include the eyelids, jaw, and neck. Over the next several hours, rigor mortis spreads up into the face and down through the chest, abdomen, arms, and legs until it reaches the fingers and toes.

Interestingly, the old custom of placing coins on the eyelids of the deceased might have originated from the desire to keep the eyes shut since rigor mortis affects them soonest. Also, it is not unusual for infants and young children who die to not display rigor mortis, possibly due to their smaller muscle mass.

Hours 7 to 12

Maximum muscle stiffness throughout the body occurs after roughly 12 hours due to rigor mortis, although this will be affected by the decedent's age, physical condition, gender, the air temperature, and other factors. At this point, the limbs of the deceased are difficult to move or manipulate. The knees and elbows will be slightly flexed, and fingers or toes can appear unusually crooked.

Hour 12 and Beyond

After reaching a state of maximum rigor mortis, the muscles will begin to loosen due to continued chemical changes within the cells and internal tissue decay. This process occurs gradually, over a period of one to three days, and will be influenced by external conditions such as temperature (cold slows the process down). The skin begins to shrink as it dries out, and hair and nails may appear to grow.

Rigor mortis dissipates in the reverse order in which it occurred—so from the fingers and toes, through the arms and legs, and then up through the chest to the neck and face. Eventually (it may take up to 48 hours), all of the muscles will again relax, reaching a state known as secondary flaccidity.

Summary of Physical Changes in the Body After Death

Starting at the moment of death, physical changes begin to take place in the body. The classic "rigor mortis" or stiffening of the body (from which the term "stiffs" derives) begins around three hours after death and is maximal at around 12 hours after death. Beginning at around the 12-hour mark, the body again becomes more flaccid as it was at the time of death.

Some people do not want to think about the changes in the body after death, whereas others wish to know. Everyone is different, and it is a very personal decision. For those who wish to know, however, we are learning that the bodily changes leading up to death, and after death, aren't simply random decomposition. Our bodies are actually designed to shut down and die at some time in a programmed manner.

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