If you’re a fan of all things creepy, then you might be wondering what happens when you die. Do parts of your body live on? Do your fingernails really grow? Can your severed head exist in a jar and be brought back to life in the future? The answer is yes and no.
“Once the human body dies it takes several days and maybe a week or two before all parts of the body shut down and stop functioning completely,” psychic and spiritual counselor Davida Rappaport tells Bustle. Once your heart has stopped, and you’re clinically dead, you’ll be well beyond noticing anything that’s happening to your body. “After the heart stops beating, oxygen supply to the brain is cut off,” Claudia Hammond noted on BBC. “With no glucose store to rely on, nerve cells die within three to seven minutes.” So that really is it.
But some bodily processes, like digestion, can tick along while bacteria — which are obviously alive whether you are or not — continue do their thing. Nothing beyond that, though, can technically survive death. So say goodbye to your dreams of coming back to life in a possible zombie apocalypse. You can, however, look forward to longer nails and maybe an orgasm or two. (Yes, really). Here are a few weird things that happen to the body, even after death.
1. Skin Cells Keep On Keeping On
Believe it or not, your skin continues to live for a short while after you die. Organs inside your body, on the other hand, don’t have as much luck, which is why “transplant surgeons must remove kidneys, livers and hearts from donors within 30 minutes of death and get them into recipients inside six hours,” said Hammond. “Skin cells, meanwhile, are longer lived. Grafts can still be successful if taken 12 hours after death.”
2. Hair & Nails Appear Longer
Your hair and nails can get longer after you die. But there’s a reason for this that doesn’t actually have anything to do with your body producing more hair. “It is believed that hair and nails continue growing after a body dies, but this is not necessarily the case,” says Rappaport. “Skin starts to recede as moisture begins to leave the body, so over time it appears that hair and nails continue growing after death.”
This is also why some men appear to have grown a beard after they die. As Hammond said, “The skin on a dead man’s chin also dries out. As it does so it pulls back towards the skull, making stubble appear more prominent. Goosebumps caused by the contraction of the hair muscles can add to the effect.”
3. Some Bodily Functions Keep Doing Their Thing
As awful as it may seem, many dead people continue to urinate and have bowel movements. “The bladder will empty, which is why some people may notice that a dead body will have wet themselves,” Rappaport says. “The colon will eventually dump its contents shortly thereafter, which could take a few hours to empty. Once all of the muscles in the body relaxes, the body will release what it had been holding back.”
4. Digestion Continues
Just because the body dies doesn’t mean the millions of bacteria inside do. “After death, there are still … bacteria in a body’s digestive tract,” Rappaport says. “Bacteria remain alive and still feeding on what is contained in the body after death. The friendly bacteria that helps us digest our food are still alive and feeding, as well at the parasitic bacteria that feed on cadavers breaking down amino acids.”
So basically, everything keeps eating — whether it’s eating food or you (cringe). And that can lead to some unpleasant smells. “The breakdown of these amino acids emit the foul smelling compounds, appropriately named putrescine and cadaverine which are toxic in large doses,” Rappaport says. “That’s why you see people in television shows covering their noses and mouths when finding bodies, etc.”
5. The Brain Remains Active
Once your heart stops beating, it’s possible for your brain to sort of know it’s dead. Recent studies have shown that animals experience a surge in brain activity in the minutes after death. And, what’s more, is that people in the first phase of death can experience some form of consciousness. For example, according to Live Science, some people whose hearts have stopped can describe what happened to them, once their hearts are restarted.
6. Muscles Can Still Move
You’d think a dead body would be a still as, well, death. But they actually move around quite a lot. As Rappaport says, “After the brain stops functioning, it takes a while for the nervous system to also stop functioning, so people may seem muscle twitches or movements.” There’s also the process of rigor mortis, or the stiffening of the body after death, which can make the body appear to “live on,” as arms and legs move and harden. According to Yale Scientific, “Immediately after death, the muscles of the body contract in the same manner as they do when the person is alive.” Then, once circulation and breathing stops, the muscles tense, and become stiff.
7. Some People Get An Erection
Since blood follows gravity and pools in the body after death, if someone dies face down, they can get what appears to be an erection. But rigor mortis can cause the same appearance, too. As Rappaport says, “Once rigor mortis sets it and the body muscles begin to stiffen, occasionally, a penis may stiffen and become erect.” Who knew?
8. Ejaculation Can Occur
After death, it’s no longer possible to ejaculate the way you might when you’re alive. And yet, there can be some seepage that may look like the real thing. As forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, MD told Men’s Health, “Sometimes we’ll find discharge near the penis on a corpse, but this comes from the passive seeping of fluid from the prostate gland … It’s leakage — not ejaculate.”
9. Orgasms Can Be Stimulated
It’s also possible for “beating heart cadavers” — dead people who are being kept “alive” on ventilators for transplants and whatnot — to experience orgasm. So while someone with a penis might be able to get an erection and ejaculate after death, females can have their fair share of after-death “fun,” too. This can happen if the sacral nerve were to be electrically stimulated, which can produce an orgasm in 91 percent of women, according to WebMD. But I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.
10. Most People Pass Gas
“Due to a buildup of excess bacteria in a body after death, the body will accumulate a lot of gas. As the body begins to release the gas, there may be sounds emitting from a body’s windpipe and there will definitely be flatulence,” Rappaport says. So if you were a champion belcher in life, you can continue to be one in death.
11. A Severed Head Can Live
At least for a few seconds. Potentially. Kind of. In the event of a decapitation, “the brain would suffer a massive drop in blood pressure,” noted Michael Dhar on LiveScience. “Rapidly losing blood and oxygen, the brain would likely go into coma, even if death took a few seconds.”
But throughout history, people have reported decapitated heads making faces, or appearing to look around. “Indeed, severed limbs can twitch from muscle reflexes, and a subconscious, reflexive portion of the brain called the extrapyramidal system produces some expressions,” Dhar said. “This brain region causes, for example, the unconscious expressions of fear, disgust and contempt shown by infants.” So while they seem alive, they aren’t really.
While some parts of the body may appear to live on after the heart stops beating, there’s just no beating death. Skin may live for a few hours, and digestion may continue. But once we’re dead, scientific research says you’re pretty much dead.