Understanding What Happens Immediately After Death

A common reality among people is a general level of discomfort associated with discussing or even thinking about death. Nonetheless, most people have a general curiosity about the process of death and dying. This includes questions and curiosity about what happens immediately after death.

Moment of Death

At the time of death, the lungs and heart cease to function. Medically and legally, death is said to occur when certain types of brain activity that can be monitored and identified ends. Researchers are now discovering that the human brain in fact appears to continue to function for about 10 minutes after the lungs and heart stop working. Thus, researchers are beginning to conclude that many people may be aware of their own deaths in ways we never imagined. 

The moment blood stops flowing through a body, the human decomposition process commences. Bacteria contained in the intestines and pancreas lose their source of nourishment when blood flow stops. Thus, bacteria turn to the body itself for sustenance. In basic terms, bacteria starts to consume organs and the body, a process that once started moves relatively swiftly. 

Hour One

By the one-hour mark, the muscles in the body relax. This results in a state called flaccidity. As a result, the joints and limbs are flexible. The muscles and skin sag. Eyelids lose their tension and the pupils dilate. The jaw might fall open. 

The body has begun dropping in temperature to the ambient temperature at the location of death. The body will have lost several degrees in temperature during the first hour following death and then drop approximately two to three degrees an hour after that until it reaches the ambient temperature of the location where death occurred. This process is sometimes referred to as the death chill. It technically is known as algor mortis.

Hours Two to Six

As a result of blood not flowing through the body for a couple of hours, blood begins to pool in the areas of the body that are closes to the ground as a basic result of gravity. As with some of the other processes discussed previously, this also has a name: livor mortis.

If a body is not disturbed or moved for about four hours, the parts of the human remains take on a reddish-purple color. The coloration looks quite like a bruise. Those involved in embalming and body preparation sometimes refer to this as a postmortem stain. 

At about the third to fourth hour mark following death, a very noticeable event occurs. Chemical changes started to occur within a person’s body the moment he or she dies. By this milestone, certain chemical changes have reached a point that all of the muscles within a body stiffen. This is known as rigor mortis

Rigor mortis actually has a generalized starting point and then spreads throughout a deceased human body. Parts of a dead body become impacted by rigor mortis in this order:

  • Eyelids, jaw, neck
  • Chest
  • Abdomen
  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Fingers
  • Toes

As an aside, deceased infants and younger children oftentimes display a different physicality during the two to six-hour time period. Most significantly, it is not unusual for infants or younger children to display no signs of rigor mortis. Medical examiners and embalmers speculate this is because they have a smaller muscle mass than older children and adults.

Hours Seven to 12

Between the seven to 12-hour timeframe rigor mortis reaches its peak. Human remains become so stiff that the limbs of a deceased individual are very difficult to move. In addition, fingers and toes may appear to be particularly or unusually crooked. 

The decomposition process continues apace during hours seven to 12. The primary areas impacted by decomposition during this time period are the intestines and the pancreas. Outward evidence of human composition is still about a day and a half to two days of being exhibited. 

Hour 12 and Onward

A common misconception among the general population is that rigor mortis is a permanent state of affairs. It is not. In fact, at about the 12-hour mark, muscles begin to loosen. This occurs as a result of ongoing chemical changes that impact cells in a deceased individual’s body. This phase is called secondary flaccidity and fairly can be said to mark the last phase of what happens immediately after death.

Secondary flaccidity occurs in reverse order from what happened with the onset of rigor mortis. The complete relaxation of a body completes within about 24 to 48 hours. Ambient temperatures impact how long it will take for secondary flaccidity to take full effect. The cooler the surrounding environment, the slower the onset of full secondary flaccidity. 

At the 12-hour mark, the skin begins to shrink as a result of dehydration and other chemical activities within a body. This gives the illusion that fingernails and toenails as well as hair are growing. 

If the remains of a deceased person are to be displayed at a viewing or funeral, a funeral director typically is called upon to take custody of the remains immediately after death. A funeral director will either directly begin the embalming process or place the remains in refrigeration until embalming, cremation, or direct burial can be undertaken.