The concept of death is a rather uncomfortable topic to think about for many, yet is a rather important one to understand for medical reasons, as well as for those invested the idea of an afterlife, which I will be discussing in Part 2. But before we go down that rabbit hole, let’s first establish what it really means to die physically. As in, what is death and dying? And what happens when we die?
I was originally going to make this 1 topic reviewing both physical death and the afterlife, but I decided that was too much information to squeeze all in one article, so I split it into 2 parts.
You may have already read one of my previous articles, “What is a Philosophy on Life?,” where I went over various concepts on the prospect of living (if you haven’t, you definitely should!). Today, I’ll be putting my focus in the opposite direction and talking about the prospect of dying in a physical sense.
Death is a strange and mysterious thing that comes to us all. But to this day, there has been no universal consensus for what constitutes actual death. This is due to the simple fact that there is no yet consensus for what is considered life. With regard to human beings, there are legal and medical definitions, but they vary by city, state, country, and medical institution.
In the pre-technological era of history, death was simply determined by the cessation of breathing and the stopping of the heart. But as technology and medical science started coming around, we’ve since discovered that we can actually restart a non-pumping heart and restore previously ceased breathing. So now, the line between life and death has become very blurred.
Some have considered death to be the end of consciousness in the body, but that only calls in to question what death means for many microorganisms (like single-cell organisms), which, to the best of our knowledge, are living but not conscious.
Fortunately for us, modern-day science can tell us many things about the body’s anatomy and how if functions. It can also tell us that the entire body does not simply “die” all at one time. Depending on the body’s physical condition, even when the heart and brain have both stopped functioning, there are still functioning cells in the body that go through a rather long process of decay.
The amount of time in which each phase of this decay takes effect depends on the person’s age, sex, physical condition, area of death, temperature of area, physical surroundings, and other external factors.
The phases of decay are described as follows:
- Pallor Mortis (avg. 15–30 minutes postmortem): muscles relax, skin gets pale due to lack of circulation
- Livor Mortis (avg. 20–40 minutes postmortem): blood sinks to the bottom-most side of the body due to gravity
- Algor Mortis (avg. 1–2 hours postmortem): body temperature drops or rises to match surrounding temperature, visible discoloration of lower skin from liver mortis
- Rigor Mortis-min (avg. 4 hours postmortem): body begins to stiffen from head to toe due to chemical changes in the muscles
- Rigor Mortis-max (avg. 12 hours postmortem): body loosens again in reverse order of rigor mortis-min from further chemical changes
- Putrefaction (avg. 24–72 hours postmortem): proteins and enzyms begin to decompose, organs and tissue begin to liquefy
- Decomposition (avg. 3–5 days postmortem): cells, organs, and tissue are feasted on by insects, scavengers, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms
- Skeletonization (avg. 1 month postmortem): skeletal remains are exposed from decomposition of all other organs, which then take 8–20 years to completely dissolve there after, depending on the size of the body
After physical death, the body is usually either buried or cremated. If left out in the open, it will decay much faster. When buried, bodies are often placed in a coffin in order to slow down the decaying process. This is done to preserve the body long enough for the person’s loved ones to see them for the last time as they mourn for the deceased at their funeral.
A person must be declared deceased under certain circumstances in order for their death to be recognized by the city, county, state, or whatever jurisdiction they fell under in the area where they died or were found dead.
Legal definitions of death vary by country and state, but most jurisdictions in the developed world now go by one of two main medical classifications: irreversible stopping of the heart (cardiopulmonary death) and inability to restore functionality of the brain (brain death).
Usually, a person may only be pronounced dead by the declaration of a qualified medical profession who determines that any further attempts at resuscitation would be ineffective, or if the brain has permanently stopped functioning, depending on the state or country.
Some jurisdictions may also declare a person dead if they go missing for a certain period of time. This is called “presumed death” and is the rarest form of legal death. The time period for a presumed death to take effect varies drastically by state and country, from as little as 2 years in China, to as high as 20 years in Italy. Presumed death may be declared sooner if the person was last seen where a deadly event had occurred, like in a place crash or a sunken ship.
Once considered dead, the person’s death is registered with the state or country of the jurisdiction they were in and a death certificate may be issued to the person’s immediate family or next of kin.
According to the Population Reference Bureau and the CIA World Factbook, approximately 55 million people worldwide are reported dead each year, which averages to about 4.6 million per month, 150,685 per day, 6,279 per hour, 105 per minute, and 2 per second.
The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports heart disease to be leading cause of death in the United States for both 2016 and 2017, with over 635,000 victims in 2016 and 647,000 in 2017, about 23% of all deaths in both years.
The country of Lesotho has had the highest known death rate of all countries in the world for years, at a rate of about 15 deaths per 1,000 people in 2017, with the leading causing of death being AIDS.
Despite this, the world population is still growing exponentially, currently estimated to be around 7.6 billion people in total this year and is projected to be about 8.5 billion by 2030.
So again, what is death and dying? People try to define it in various ways, but the complexity of our bodily functions and systems doesn’t make it easy for us to do so, as bodily cells and organs usually don’t just all hit the “off” switch when someone dies. It’s ironic how the many facts about the body that we do know only serve to enlighten us about how much we don’t know.
To actually know and understand death requires clear understanding of several other concepts we have yet to figure out, such as life, the cessation of life, consciousness, and the afterlife. What happens to our minds when we get a visit from the grim reaper? Read Part 2 of this article to find out.
And as always, don’t forget to share your thoughts on it in the comments down below.
Until next time,