Are You Really Dead When They Say You Are?

The Evolution of Death
The Evolution of Death

What is the one certainty of life? Death, right? But it is the least discussed of topics. People call you morbid, negative, depressed if you talk about it.

To me, since we’ve all got to face it some day, what’s the harm in touching on it once in a while?

I recently came across an article that talks about the moment of death, and what fascinated me was that the scientific community is still uncertain about the exact moment of death:

 “Most of us would agree that King Tut and the other mummified ancient Egyptians are dead, and that you and I are alive. Somewhere in between these two states lies the moment of death. But where is that? The old standby — and not such a bad standard — is the stopping of the heart. But the stopping of a heart is anything but irreversible. We’ve seen hearts start up again on their own inside the body, outside the body, even in someone else’s body. Christian Barnard was the first to show us that a heart could stop in one body and be fired up in another.

As I went on to read it, I was intrigued by the concept of life residing in various parts of the human body, not just in the brain or heart: (Warning: this gets a little gory)

“What’s alive and what’s dead breaks down when we get above the cellular level,” Sorenson says. “Pathologists don’t feel comfortable that a brain is dead until the cell walls break down. True cell death is a daylong process.”

…Cell death is far removed from brain death. As shown, brain death can be declared when only a few brain cells have actually died. Cells in the remainder of the body are alive and kicking. Brain-dead patients being sustained as beating-heart cadavers are still supplying most of their body’s cells with blood and thus oxygen, so total cell death is nowhere in sight. Cell death begins in earnest when the heart stops beating and the lungs cease to breathe. No longer being pumped through the body, the blood will drain from the blood vessels at the top of the body and collect in the lower part. The upper body will become pale, the lower body turning much darker, looking bruised. This is livor mortis.

Even at this point, however, most cells are still not dead. After the heart stops, brain cells will die in a few minutes. Muscle cells can hold on for several hours, and skin and bone cells can stay alive for days. Cells switch from aerobic (with oxygen) respiration to anaerobic (without oxygen) when the blood stops circulating. A by-product of anaerobic respiration is lactic acid, which is what makes your arm muscles hurt during arm wrestling or your legs hurt during a hard run. When you are alive, your blood flow clears out the acid, but in a dead person the body stiffens. This is rigor mortis. Rigor mortis usually begins about three hours after the heart stops and lasts thirty-six hours. Eventually all of the cells die. After rigor mortis come initial decay, putrefaction, black putrefaction, and butyric fermentation. Somewhere in these processes — taking as long as a year, depending on the conditions and the weather — is a moment of death. Where that is may be impossible to determine.

To get a better picture of what I’m talking about, read the article– because it talks not just about the moment of death, but the question of selfhood, and how important human beings really are, are we the ultimate in evolution?

Do you ever wonder about death? Do we think more about death as we grow older? What is death, really? What is the moment of death? Are you really dead when they say you are?


Add Yours
  1. Rangelz

    There are times I wonder about death. Well, mostly about the life after death. But never in this manner. When exactly does death happen? Somehow that never interested me. The only thing I have always ended up saying is that I want someone ready to guide me on the other side when my soul leaves the body. The uncertainty is what scares me.


  2. Robert Jepson

    The death of the body is indeed a complex issue, but death as a finality doesn’t exist. What we are, our true self, of which most of us are unconscious of, goes on. To realise that we have to transcend the false ‘me’ , which is the true purpose of meditation and the correct use of prayer :)


  3. writingsprint

    What a deep subject!

    Do you ever wonder about death? Wonder? No. I’m in an ongoing state of discovery about death. When I was growing up I was terrified of going to Hell. When I was in my twenties, I felt better about myself, and thought about acceptance. These days I think about the emphasis on breath in yoga, and I have this sneaky feeling that when we die, our last breath is us leaving our bodies.

    Do we think more about death as we grow older? Once you had a friend or relative die it becomes part of your world view. As a subject on its own? It comes and goes for me.

    What is death, really? Change from one form to another.

    What is the moment of death? For physical death, I’m going to stick with the medical answer of the moment that blood flow to the brain stops. Spiritually, I don’t think we die. Emotionally, I think we can go through some phases where if we’re not dead, we’re burned down, but the good thing is that plants do come back from ashes.

    Are you really dead when they say you are? Physically? Dead as a doornail. Plant a tree and make something useful out of the body. I once had a friend who was an archaeologist say that you should never, ever cremate a body, because archaeologists will want to study your remains hundreds of years from now :) ! Spiritually? Nope.


  4. beetleypete

    A very thought-provoking article, and it obviously hit a nerve (unintended pun) with your readers. When I worked as a paramedic for half my life, I became accustomed to death. I was left believing that there is a ‘spark’ in humans. Once that is gone, the body loses any comparison to a living person, I am not religious, but this may be what some refer to as a soul. To me, it was about the eyes, which always tell you if there is anything left inside.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.


  5. bronxboy55

    I think about this a lot. The brain maintains its connections and memories for a while after being deprived of blood and oxygen. Maybe it keeps right on thinking, too. Does that mean people can hear themselves being pronounced dead? It’s possible.


  6. imaginenewdesigns12

    Thank you for liking “America’s Ancient Past: Part 1.” Yes, I wonder about death, but I do not think about it constantly. The article that you cite in this post, however, makes me realize that the moment of death is not so easy to determine, especially when cells in other parts of the body do not stop functioning at the same time that brain cells do. Perhaps the varying rates of cell death in the human body make it possible for people who were declared dead to suddenly come back to life after a day or a few days.


  7. symonae

    I have wondered about death. I’m 24 and I think of death sometimes; not that I want to die just yet, but that it cannot be avoided. As I grow older, I’m sure to think on death a little more often. After the death of my aunt last November, I have thought more on life. When I read of death or anything about dying, I think of how I’ll go and leave this earth.


  8. tsf36

    Thought provoking. I lost my Mom in Feb, due to complications from C.O.P.D. She was on a vent but awake and aware.Unlike some she wen’t peaceful and fast. I remember staying in the room long after she had gone and thinking what if she can still hear us. Yes, grief driven I know. I personal feel like there is death of the soul or intellectual person and then there is cell death. I loved what you wrote it gives me and others food for thought. .


  9. bluebutterfliesandme

    I think it is a wonderful and fascinating subject. Many beliefs are that it takes 3 days for complete separation. I am one who would prefer nothing is touched or done to my body for those 3 days but that is not easily accomplished unless you run away to die. lol A friend of mine died last year and she wasn’t found for 5 days, some thought that was terrible. Since she and I shared many beliefs I was happy she wasn’t disturbed in the process and I spoke to her shortly after I discovered which was possible on the 6th day. Believe it or not, I don’t often speak to dead people.


    • Damyanti

      3 days for complete separation. That sounds like a story title. Your comment will stay with me, and who knows, some day I’ll have to acknowledge its inspiration for a story.


    • birdpond

      Makes me wonder about animals, and our companion animals especially. Would they benefit from the caregiver staying with them after they’ve been put to sleep or have passed away naturally, or had a traumatic injury? Should we stay with the body or take it with us rather than allow the vet to whisk it away in a few minutes? Is your beloved companion aware of your presence on some level, and if there is a measure of awareness and life still there, will he or she feel abandoned if you leave before 2-3 days have passed?

      Makes me also feel bad for my loved ones (human, furred or feathered) from whom I turned away in anguish once the spark had left their eyes. Maybe, in my grief, I failed them at the end. I hate to consider that.

      Human, non-human, if there is a soul, we all have it, and it deserves respect, no matter what form the body may take – in life, or in death.


      • bluebutterfliesandme

        Certainly animals as well. One reason why we hold vigils, and say prayers for the departed. I would like it if my loved ones said prayers for my crossing/transitioning. This is why the Tibetan monks study the bardo so intensely,they prepare for death all their lives. The more conscious we are while living and while nightly sleeping, the more conscious we will be when we leave this vehicle. We want to be able to direct our souls.

        Recently in my group meditations, I saw another (not the one mentioned above) departed friend, and my departed cat.He did not communicate but he was there. I did hug my friend, and tell her how much I missed her.



  10. Sue Elvis

    I often write about death. When you have had a child die in your arms, death is no longer remote and something to think about in the future. It becomes part of your life. Personally, I think it should be spoken about more often. Interesting post!


  11. Anita

    Death is a topic that we know so little about even after our technological strides!
    Yes, I have pondered about what happens after death…
    Great points here, Damyanti :)


  12. Faisal Arshad

    Well, thats really convincing. I agree that we fail to see death as a decay process, both in the phisiological perspective and social perspectice.
    A coma patient is socially dead as long as the condition prevails, even when the body does the ordinary job.
    I think actual death is when the brain cells are dead, which is what you told take place in a few hours after heart/lungs go off.


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