The Science of Death: Dying, Decomposing, and Destiny

Written by Clea Seares and Johann Espino
Illustration by Eva Gonzales
Published 2020 December 29

“Time of death: 1:30 p.m.”, the doctor said.

As I lay dead in my hospital bed, I see my parents stand beside me while rivers of tears immediately start flowing from their eyes. And then in a heartbeat, they tightly embrace me while wailing in agony.

Several minutes after my death, my body starts to become pale because my heart no longer pumps blood within me, and this signals the start of my body’s decomposition. My cells stop functioning because I cannot obtain oxygen anymore. As a consequence, toxins inside me fail to be broken down and large amounts of acid start to accumulate within me. My very own organs, starting from my liver and brain, then start to get digested by my own enzymes.[1]

So this is what it feels like to die—to have each and every sign of life in me disappear one by one.

I slowly enter algor mortis, the first postmortem stage. My body temperature slowly drops in order to reach the temperature of my external environment, and this process will last for about 6 hours. While my temperature continues to drop, I also enter rigor mortis, another postmortem stage. My muscles start to contract, starting from those at my heart, followed by those at my neck, face, chest, arms, abdomen, legs, and then those at my hands and feet. All such muscles will become completely contracted after 12 hours but eventually, my body becomes completely flaccid after a day or two.[2, 3, 4]

As all of these happen, my body enters the remaining postmortem stage: livor mortis. Within an hour, my blood moves toward certain parts of my body which are nearer to the ground due to gravity. Since I am currently lying down in a stretcher, it is my back part of my body that first experiences such. My back slowly gains a purplish-black color and is followed by the tips of my fingers.[2, 3, 4]

My parents bring me to a funeral parlor. There, the people at the parlor embalm my body in order to delay its decomposition. Much care is taken in preparing me. It’s as if I was in a massage parlor for the dead. First, they bathe me in a disinfectant solution and then massage my limbs to relieve the stiffening of my joints and muscles. A fluid mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents are circulated in through my blood vessels; this preserves my body’s tissues as if to “affix” them by linking the cellular proteins in the tissue to each other. It also kills the bacteria in my body to prevent them from decomposing me. They drain the gas and fluids in my body and inject it again with formaldehyde-based chemicals.[1,5]

After all the surgical preparation, they place make-up on my face. I’m given a dress to wear and I’m placed to sleep peacefully on the white cushions of my deathbed. I guess this is the best I can look, and this is also how my loved ones will see me for the last time.

Surrounded by lovely funeral wreaths, I peacefully lie in my well-lit coffin, its pearly white color almost matching my pale skin. Attached on its cap panel are dainty ribbons filled with the names of the loved ones I left behind: my parents, friends, relatives, among others. Placed on the glass-top of my casket is my college graduation picture where I am smiling in glory, unaware of my imminent passing.[6]

Every so often, my family and loved ones would stand by me and look at me. Some would simply gaze at me with eyes full of sadness, and others would weep either loudly or silently, with their tears drenching my casket.

Sigh, I wish there was something I can do to comfort them.

Curious children would come inspect me too. While some know that I am indeed lifeless, others would wonder why my act of “sleeping” is a spectacle visited by many.

Every night, a Catholic vigil is held in memory of me. And since I am not allowed to be left alone in accordance with tradition, my loved ones take turns in keeping me company. To pass time, they would engage in gambling—playing cards and taking part in mahjong. My family would customarily prepare a table with food, candies, and coffee for guests to partake of; they have also perhaps even served my favorite food so that others may share of it. Others would converse with anyone present, sharing stories about the joyful memories I left behind with them and how I lived my life to the fullest.[6]

Finally, the day has come to bring me to my final resting place. As my casket is brought inside the black car, all my relatives and the people I’ve met and known in all my life, prepare to follow. It’s such a big event when I think about it; they’re holding a procession in my name.

I’m brought to the cemetery and they hold a mass because my family, like that of many Filipinos, is Catholic, and I’m blessed by the priest so that I can pass on peacefully into the afterlife. Afterwards, it was time to say goodbye. I’m surrounded by all the people who’ve been closest to me in my life and they come together to lay me underneath the ground.

Death seems to appear as a loss of life, but quite contrary, I think, it is the release of life. It is not life no longer being there, but rather life being shared into other forms. As my body decomposes, I return to the Earth nourishing the ground around me. Every kilogram of my body has a composition of 32g of nitrogen, 10g of phosphorus, 4g of potassium, and 1g of magnesium that is released into the soil. My body forms a microbial biomass wherein after some time of the decomposition period, the soil becomes rich with nutrients and allows other organisms to thrive where I am.[1]

The law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another, and as our bodies reach the end of life, it also simply takes another form. When we are alive, our bodies are masses holding energy and we live as such occupying the spaces around us. As we reach death, our bodies begin to decompose, letting go of the life that was once within us.

I believe that if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that no matter what our beliefs are about the afterlife, whether there is one or not, our bodies all eventually end up the same, with life no longer being kept in the masses of our body. Life is shared. A whole becomes parts spreading throughout its surroundings, finally taking its place in the vast expanse of the universe.

References

  1. Costandi M. Life after death: the science of human decomposition [Internet]. 2015 May 05 [cited 2020 Nov 30]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/neurophilosophy/2015/may/05/life-after-death
  2. Almulhim AM & Menezes RG. Evaluation of Postmortem Changes [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554464/
  3. Shedge R, Krishan K, Warrier V, et al. Postmortem Changes [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan [cited 2020 Dec 02]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539741/
  4. Prahlow J. Forensic Pathology for Police, Death Investigators, Attorneys, and Forensic Scientists. [Internet].  Humana Press. 2009. Chapter 8: Postmortem Changes and Time of Death [updated 2010; cited 2020 Dec 02]; 163-184. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-59745-404-9_8
  5. The Embalming Process [Internet]. Basic Funerals and Cremation Choices; [cited 2020 Dec 12]. Available from: https://basicfunerals.ca/funeral-industry/the-embalming-process/
  6. Alberts T. Filipino Burial Practices and Customs [Internet]. 2017 Jun 07 [cited 2020 Dec 8] Available from: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Filipino-Burial-Dos-and-Donts

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