What Happens to Your Body When You Die? 0

What happens to your body when you die

What happens to your body when you die? It might seem like the very definition of a morbid question. But there’s actually something fascinating – even beautiful – about the transformation the human body undergoes when life ends.

Plus, unlike the question of where your soul goes, we actually know a lot about what happens to the body after death. Here’s the lowdown.

 

What happens to the body immediately after death?

Right from the moment of your death, your body starts to change.

 

Your heart stops beating 

What happens to your body when you die - human heart

When the heart stops beating, blood stops moving around the body. This has a few immediate effects:

  • Pallor mortis: you turn pale as blood drains from the upper-facing side of your body. This may not be noticeable if you’re not light-skinned, though.
  • Algor mortis: your body begins to cool down from its usual 37°C, at a rate of about 0.8°C an hour. Sometimes known as ‘Death Chill’ (which is also a great band name).

 

All your muscles relax

Tension falls out of your face, skin sags, and your jaw may fall open. Laugh lines smooth out (a plus). But sometimes, your bowels empty as well, since sphincters stop closing (a big minus).

 

Hospital staff tidy you up

Don’t worry though – you won’t stay messy for long. If you’ve died in hospital, the staff there will perform ‘last offices’ within the hour: cleaning you and arranging you neatly. If not, the funeral director will do this slightly later.

In some cases, a post mortem will take place after a death. That’s a medical examination to find out how someone has died. It’s typically for people who have died suddenly, rather than after a long (already diagnosed) illness.

 

Your body turns on itself

The human body is packed with enzymes that help us with things like digestion. While you’re alive, they’re harmless. But within minutes of your death, they leak out and turn their attention to breaking down cells in your body, starting with your liver and brain (the tasty parts). The process is called autolysis.

 

What happens to your body in the first few hours after death?

What happens to your body when you die can tell crimefighters a lot. Starting with…

 

Livor mortis makes you black and blue

With your heart no longer pumping, your blood obeys the laws of gravity. As it drains from the upward-facing side of your body, it pools on the underside, creating purplish bruise-like patches.

Did you know? The placement of livor mortis patches help coroners determine if someone’s body has been moved after their death.

 

Rigor mortis gives you a stiff upper lip (and everything else)

What happens to your body when you die - twitching

Your body begins to stiffen up and fixes in one position. This begins 2-6 hours after your death, and starts with your eyelids and neck. Rigor mortis starts to wear off within a day or two. If you can die in an amusing position, so much the better.

 

You may even sigh, groan and twitch

Yes, sometimes dead bodies flex a little as the muscles contract. And when you’re moved, air can escape your lungs, creating the occasional groan or sigh. Disconcerting for morgue staff on late-night shifts!

 

What do undertakers do to a body?

What happens to a body at the funeral home depends a lot on the wishes of the family. But here’s a rough guide.

 

Embalming becomes an option

At the family’s request, the funeral home staff may embalm your body. Embalming is a chemical preservation process that can drastically slow down decomposition. 

Unless your body is due to be sent abroad, embalming is not legally mandatory. People can still touch and spend time with your body without it. But it does keep you looking like you did when you were alive for longer (for better or worse). You can find out more about embalming here.

 

You get dolled up

What happens to your body when you die - shave

Whether you get embalmed or not, your body is washed and groomed. Nails will be trimmed, hair brushed and styled: that sort of thing. Make-up can be applied. If you’re usually clean-shaven, you will be given a shave. Family members can bring in a picture to show staff your usual ‘look’.

 

You’ll be chilling out

Usually there is a two or three week wait between a death and the funeral. So, bodies at the funeral home are kept very cold to slow down decomposition. 

 

You may receive visitors

If your family or friends would like to come and see your body before the funeral, you’ll be taken to a visiting room. This is often called the ‘chapel of rest’ or something similar. There, they can talk to you and even hold your hand.

 

What happens to the body in the first few days after you die?

If your body is embalmed or immediately refrigerated, it may take more time before the following processes kick in.

 

Bacteria have a gas

As cells break down and more enzymes leak out, your body becomes a feast for bacteria. These start in the gut (home to trillions of “friendly” bacteria) and work their way out. Gases released by the process cause your body to bloat up, sometimes to twice the size. 

Fluids, meanwhile, are pushed out: one of the reasons funeral directors pack the mouths, noses, ears and other orifices of the dead with cotton pads.

What happens to your body when you die - going green

 

You go green – and black

Blood cells leak, and bacteria turn the haemoglobin there into sulfhaemoglobin. This gives your skin a greenish hue, darkening and marbling into black in places.

 

Your skin can go walkabout

Within 2-3 days, something called “skin slippage” occurs. This is exactly what it sounds like. The build of fluids and gases in the body causes the outermost layer of skin to loosen and, in places, slip off. The skin underneath can be very slimy to the touch.

 

You smell less-than-pleasant – to humans…

Other by-products of the bacteria party in your body are cadaverine and putrescine. These aptly-named substances give bodies their distinctive odour. This in turn attracts visitors: tiny blowflies that come to join in the fun.

 

What happens to the body after death in a coffin?

Most funerals take place two to three weeks after the death. What happens to the body after burial (we’re assuming you’re not cremated here) is again variable. In very cold and very hot places, decomposition is slowed. Sometimes, mummification happens. But here’s a general overview.

 

Bloating intensifies 

Like someone in a yoghurt advert, your body continues to bloat. Unlike someone in a yoghurt advert, it liquefies inside, and more fluid and gas will be released. It may eventually split open due to the pressure. 

 

What happens to your body when you die attracts flies

Insects get busy

Remember the blowflies from earlier? They laid eggs, and those eggs will hatch into maggots. In certain ‘perfect’ conditions, there can be so many maggots that it increases the inside temperature of the body by 10°C. These attract other hungry insects, like beetles, and spiders.

All this might sound kind of horrible. But your body helps create new life. Maggots and worms are eaten by beetles, and both are eaten by birds. Nutrients enter the soil and enrich it. It’s nothing to be frightened of.

 

Your hair and nails fall out

About a month after you die, your hair and nails fall out as the skin beneath decays. They don’t disappear, though: after the skeleton, hair in particular is one of the last things to go.

 

You dry out

Once your soft inner tissues have decomposed, your body becomes dry and brittle. You’re left with bones, hair, cartilage and the sticky residue of decay. Larger beetles move in. Skin sags, and you look “caved in”.

 

What happens to your body when you die - dancing skeletons

Skeletonisation occurs

Basically, you’re just bones. The skeleton decays at a much, much slower rate than the rest of your body. 

At around 10°C, it takes roughly four months for the skeleton to be fully exposed. But it takes years for the skeleton to crumble – although this is helped along by acids in the soil, funghi and bacteria. To the joy of archaeologists everywhere, they can survive centuries.

 


 

That’s it! Everything you might want to know about what happens to a body in a casket over time, or what happens in the first few minutes.

Feeling queasy? If you have strong feelings about what should happen to your body when the time finally comes, don’t forget to make plans ahead of time. Discover our flexible funeral plans here.

And for more information on death and funeral topics, don’t forget to check out the rest of our blog!

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What Makes a Good Funeral? 0

A wicker coffin decorated with flowers by the team at Full Circle Funerals

What makes a ‘good’ funeral?

Most people in the funeral profession have their own (usually quite personal) idea of what the answer to this question should be.

For the eco-minded funeral director, it’s often things like willow coffins and natural burials. Others pride themselves on their traditional horse-drawn carriages and excellent embalming. And there’s always the odd funeral director who seems to think it’s all about having a lot of cars (so many cars).

But what happens when we ask bereaved families what they think?

Dr Sarah Jones, funeral director at Open Circle Funerals and author of the excellent Funerals, Your Way, has just completed a study that did just that. A collaboration with Dr Julie Rugg from the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group, the research revealed the five key factors that matter to families most. We caught up with Sarah to find out more.

 

Hi Sarah! What inspired you to do this research?

Having started my working life in healthcare, I was ‘brought up’ to make sure that everything I did was based on evidence.

Once I began arranging funerals, I naturally wanted to take the same approach. So, I began looking at all the writing available on funerals. But what I found was mostly based on anecdote, opinion or the personal reflections of professionals. And even the more robust research made assumptions about what was important, without having asked bereaved people themselves. I thought we could do better.

 

What were you trying to find out through your research?

Ultimately, I’d like to understand whether a funeral has any impact on wellbeing at all. What difference does a ‘good’ funeral make?

But before we can look at that, we need to understand what a good funeral is. Which aspects of a funeral are most important to families? Only then can we establish if, when all these factors are in place, there is an impact on how bereaved people feel.

 

How did you conduct your research?

Dr Julie Rugg and I designed and co-lead the study with the University of York. We recruited participants using newspaper articles and social media and asked them open questions about their experience of arranging or attending a funeral. We spoke to more than 50 people. Meanwhile, we had ethical oversight from an advisory committee made up of industry experts.

 

People aren’t always comfortable talking about death. Was it hard to find participants?

Actually, no! We thought that it might be, but in the end we had to stop recruiting new participants once we had interviewed 53 people. People were surprisingly forthcoming, too: the average interview was around an hour and a half long. We gathered a huge amount of data from these ‘experts by experience’!

 

What did you find out?

Once our interviews were complete, Dr Rugg analysed them to understand what people consistently said mattered to them. The five themes that emerged were:An infographic showing Dr Jones' findings

  1. Were funeral wishes known?
  2. Were decisions inclusive?
  3. Was the funeral director responsive?
  4. Was contact with the body helpful?
  5. Did the funeral event meet expectations?

 

Why did it matter if funeral wishes were known?

People spoke in detail about how meaningful it was to be able to fulfil funeral wishes after someone has died. If their wishes were unknown, it often meant that the family worried about whether they’d done the right thing. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to matter if the instructions were detailed or not. It was enough to just have some direction.

 

What does it mean that decisions were inclusive?

How well a family worked together to arrange the funeral had a significant impact on how satisfied they were with it. Most families seemed to try hard to manage this. But in some cases, people felt deliberately excluded from arrangements, or felt that their opinions were ignored. These people were the most dissatisfied with the funeral.

 

Any key takeaways for funeral directors?

First impressions count. People often commented on whether the funeral director had got the tone right straight off the bat – and this initial impression seemed to set the tone for the relationship.

One thing that might surprise funeral directors is that while some people wanted to be given a lot of personalisation, choice and control over the funeral, others did not.

Essentially, funeral directors need to have the emotional intelligence and skill to be able to understand and deliver the kind of support that each individual family wants and needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all option.

 

You mention contact with the body: do families want more, or less?

It varied. While some people found being with the body consoling, others didn’t need or want that contact at all. But time and again we heard that it was important. Contact with the body of the person who had died, at the right time, was a key talking point. It matters a great deal to many people.

 

What about embalming?

Not wanting to bias our interviewees, we didn’t ask any direct questions about embalming. But the people who raised it themselves did so in a negative way – citing various interventions which had occurred without their prior knowledge.

 

Did any of your findings really surprise you?

For me, one of the most striking findings was that different people found meaning in very different elements of the funeral.

For some people, this happened at the time of death.  For others, it was the act of carrying the coffin, writing the eulogy or lovingly preparing the written service booklet.  Some people found the choice of coffin or flowers important; others couldn’t even remember what had been chosen.

 

What would you like others to draw from your work?

Funeral services are under a lot of scrutiny at the moment. It’s the perfect time to reassess the kind of support we offer bereaved families. And there’s no denying that the people who shared their accounts with us really challenged some of the current thinking about funerals and what people want from a funeral director.

What I’d like this study to do is help people in the funeral profession benefit from the perspective of bereaved people. After all, we all want to offer the best possible support to the families who place their trust in us.

Want to find out more about the study? A full report can be downloaded for free here.

The Unexpected Rise of Cremation Jewellery 0

cremation jewellery
If you stopped someone on the street 15 years ago and asked them whether they had any human ashes on them, they would have thought you were mad.
 
Now – well, they’ll probably still think you’re mad – but you’re far more likely to get a “yes” for an answer. More and more people are carrying a loved one’s ashes with them in ‘keepsake’ jewellery. A once-tiny industry is suddenly flourishing. But why this, and why now?
 

Memorial jewellery has a history

This is not a new thing. The Victorians (ever morbid) were keen on memorial jewellery of all kinds. Often made from jet and other black materials, these pieces fit with the strict mourning dress code of the day
 
At the time, British cremation was still in its infancy. So, Victorian memorial jewellery didn’t usually contain ashes. But many pieces contained a small memento, like a lock of hair. They were a way to show the world that you treasured a loved one’s memory.
 
Eventually, memorial jewellery fell out of fashion. People were living longer, and by WWI the culture around death and mourning had shifted. But the precedent was set…
 

Attitudes towards cremation have changed

Cremation was controversial at first. The British Home Office banned the first crematorium from use shortly after its construction. It took years (and lawsuits) before cremations could regularly take place.
 
But, by the late 1960s, the number of families choosing this option had overtaken burial. And as that number grew, there was a gradual shift in what people decided to do with the ashes, as well.
 
In the 60s, around 80% of families buried or scattered ashes in the remembrance garden at the crematorium. Now, that figure is completely reversed, with 80% of families taking the ashes away with them. 
 
Preferences have also shifted away from the big-urn-on-the-mantlepiece towards scattering. People often don’t want the ashes (and there are alot of ashes) in the house. While it can be comforting to keep a loved one close by, large urns can be intimidating, and the question of where to put them equally daunting
 
By comparison, scattering the ashes on a hillside or river has real romantic appeal. It can feel like more of a final resting place. A small ceremony, somewhere that resonates with the person they love, can offer a kind of closure. In fact, 79% of people who want a cremation would like their ashes scattered.
 


A happy medium

Ashes jewellery

But scattering does have drawbacks. More than a few people who have scattered ashes have found themselves missing them. By then, it’s too late to do anything about it. So, many of us have started to wonder if there was a way to do both: put the person to rest, but also keep them close. 

 
Enter ashes jewellery. Families can scatter most of the ashes, and keep a small amount back to place in a locket or ring. And over the last few years, this way of memorialising someone seems to have blossomed. Now, there is a wide selection of ashes jewellery to choose from. From hollow pendants to clever pieces with the ashes held in glass or resin, there’s something for everyone
 
But, unlike Victorian memorial pieces, these new designs are subtle. Rather than broadcasting the owner’s loss, they allow the wearer to feel close to their loved one – without anyone the wiser.
 

Future or fad?

Only time will tell if ashes jewellery is a brief fashion or here to stay. But most people are at least aware of the option, and a number of companies have sprung up to meet this need. It’s also possible we’ll never know quite how popular ashes jewellery is. After all, with the new pieces being so discreet, who else is to know you’re wearing them – unless you tell them …