No living human knows what happens when we die, but here’s what we’ve gleaned from history and some near-death survivors who said they glimpsed the other side.
What happens when you die is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries on earth, simply because none of us know the answer and yet all of us will experience death eventually.
In 1994, an orthopedic surgeon named Tony Cicoria may have come close to solving this great mystery when he was struck by a fatal bolt of lightning. Cicoria felt himself fly backward and the next thing he remembered was turning around to see his body lying on the ground behind him.
For a moment, Cicoria reported, he stood there and watched a woman perform CPR on his body before he floated up a flight of stairs to watch his children play in their rooms.
“Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light,” Cicoria recalled, “an enormous feeling of well-being and peace…The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up…Then, as I was saying to myself, ‘This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had’ — slam! I was back.”
According to Dr. Sam Parnia, who has studied near-death experiences for years, Cicoria’s encounter was not an uncommon one.
“Death is a process,” Parnia added. “it is not a black and white moment.”
Here’s what exactly he means by that.
What Happens When You Die, Scientifically
While we may not fully understand the feeling of dying until we experience it for ourselves, we do know what happens right before and after death when it comes to the condition of our bodies.
At first, according to Dr. Nina O’Connor, a person’s breathing will become irregular or unusually shallow or deep, and their breath can then begin to sound like a rattle or a gurgle, which happens because the person isn’t able to cough up or swallow secretions in their chest and throat.
“All of it comes from the process of the body slowing and shutting down,” she says. This sound has been fittingly called “the death rattle.” The death rattle can indicate impending death in a person who has been dying for some time.
At the moment of death, every muscle in the body relaxes. This may cause the person to moan or sigh as any excess air is released from their lungs into their throat and vocal cords.
Meanwhile, as the body relaxes, the pupils dilate, the jaw may fall open, and the skin sags. If the person has any urine or feces in their body these will be released too.
But as Parnia suggested, death doesn’t happen in an instance and some researchers assert that our brains can operate up to ten minutes after our hearts stop beating.
Within the first hour after dying, the body begins the “death chill,” also called algor mortis. This is when the corpse cools from its normal temperature to the temperature of the room around it.
After a couple of hours, blood will begin pooling in the areas of the body that are closest to the ground due to gravity. This is known as livor mortis. If the body stays in the same position for several hours, these body parts will start to look bruised while the rest of the body become more pale.
Limbs and joints will begin to stiffen within a few hours after death during a process called rigor mortis. When the body is at its maximum stiffness, the knees and elbows will be flexed and the fingers and toes may appear crooked.
After around 12 hours, the process of rigor mortis will start to reverse. This is due to the decay of internal tissue and it lasts between one and three days.
During this reversal, the skin begins to shrink which can create the illusion that the person’s hair and nails have grown, but this is just a myth. It is only due to the tightening of the skin around the corpse that hair, nails, and teeth appear to have grown.
Interestingly, the tightening of the skin also gave the illusion that blood had been sucked from the corpses and this eerie result inspired some of the vampire legends of medieval Europe we still know today.
What It Feels Like When We Die, According To Physicians
Because most of us won’t have a near-death experience during our lifetimes as Cicoria did, we are left with the overarching question: What does it feel like to take your last breath?
According to general practitioner Dr. Clare Gerada, death can sometimes feel like having to use the bathroom.
“Most people will die in bed, but of the group that don’t, the majority will die sitting on the lavatory. This is because there are some terminal events, such as an enormous heart attack or clot on the lung, where the bodily sensation is as if you want to defecate.”
If a person doesn’t die from a terminal event, however, and instead passes on more slowly from a long-term illness or old age, dying may feel a bit like depression. Toward the end of their lives, people tend to eat and drink less, which results in fatigue and a lack of energy. This causes them to move, talk, and think slower.
Dr. O’Connor adds that “the physical fatigue and weakness [of people near the end] is profound. Simple things, like getting up out of bed and into a chair could be exhausting — that could be all of someone’s energy for a day.”
Generally, it is difficult to glean how a person feels when they are dying or when they die, as in these final moments it is difficult for them to express themselves.
What Happens To Your Body After You Die — Practically Speaking
Typically in the West, bodies are embalmed after death. The process of embalming dates back to the Egyptians, and even earlier, where some cultures mummified their dead in the hopes that their soul could one day return to the corpse.
Aztecs and Mayans, too, have a history of mummifying their dead. But embalming in the U.S., specifically, became popular during the Civil War as a means to transport fallen soldiers back to their families to be buried.
Many Christians embalm their dead so that they can hold a wake, a ceremony during which loved ones of the deceased can say their goodbyes personally.
Embalming is a meticulous process. As soon as a doctor has certified that a person is dead, the body is transported to a coroner who may request a postmortem examination. This process requires a pathologist to complete an external and internal examination. For the internal examination, the pathologist removes every organ of the body from the tongue to the brain, inspects them, and then places them back in the body.
Next, the body is embalmed. During the embalming, the body is drained of fluid and replaced with a preservative, like formaldehyde, and the throat and nose are packed with cotton wool. The mouth is stitched or glued closed from the inside. The hair is washed, the nails are cleaned and cut, and cosmetics are applied to the face and skin. Plastic caps are applied under the eyelids to help them hold their shape.
Finally, the body is dressed and placed in a coffin. From here, it can be buried or cremated, depending on the person’s preference, culture, or religion.
In many non-Western cultures, in fact, these death rituals are very different.
This is especially true for the Toraja people of Indonesia. In this culture, it is believed that the dead are never really gone so people are not so quick to dispose of their loved ones.
When a Toraja person dies, their family cares for their body until a proper funeral can be prepared — which can take weeks to months or even years.
During this time, the deceased is treated as if they are simply sick instead of dead. Once the funeral is finally ready, the Toraja village honors the dead with prayers, dancing, and animal sacrifice before they take the body to its tomb.
However, the body is not left in this tomb forever. Every one to three years, the Toraja people exhume their loved ones to be freshened up and remembered. The bodies are wiped clean, dressed in new clothes, and introduced to any new family members.
Where We Go After Death, According To History And Some Religions
Indeed, humans have long coped with the question of what happens when we die by creating our own theories and they vary drastically across cultures and religions. Our lives and burial rituals have thus been shaped by these beliefs.
Jews, for example, do not embalm their loved ones and instead bury them quickly after they are declared dead death. Rabbi Corey Helfand says, “[According] to the texts we read in Genesis, with Adam coming from the Earth, we give our bodies back to the Earth and to God — that’s why we bury our dead.”
Jews are thus typically buried naked, wrapped in a cotton sheet, and laid in a plain pine coffin so that the body may decompose naturally. Muslims do the same with their dead, burying them without a coffin in some cases.
Medieval Christians lived their lives considering and preparing for death, mostly because they were surrounded by it. Without modern medicine, there were high rates of infant mortality and disease, famine and war were also rampant. Christian Europeans then valued a death that was prepared, one that allowed them to be forgiven and repent.
Medieval Christians were terrified of purgatory, which is where they would go when they died were they unable to repent before their last breath.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the dead had to first pass through the underworld before they could rest in the afterlife. But the journey to the afterlife was riddled with obstacles, so the ancient Egyptians buried their loved ones with scrolls inscribed with spells to protect and guide them to their final resting place. Archaeologists have even found maps of the underworld in tombs to accompany the dead.
What Really Happens When You Die, From People Who’ve Been There
Despite handling death in many different ways, many humans are still apprehensive about what happens when we die — namely with our consciousness, or our souls, as many cultures call it.
In 1988, actress Jane Seymour went into anaphylactic shock. As her body began to shut down, her mind stayed aware.
“I had the vision of seeing a white light and looking down and seeing myself in this bedroom with a nurse frantically trying to save my life and jabbing injections in me, and I’m calmly watching this whole thing,” she says.
Dr. Sam Parnia recorded this phenomenon with multiple survivors during his 2014 study of near-death experiences. One patient could recall what was happening in the hospital for a full three minutes after his heart had stopped.
“The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three-minute intervals,” said Parnia. “So we could time how long the experience lasted for. He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”
While not every survivor that Parnia spoke with had an out-of-body experience, as many as 40 percent of them do recall having some sort of “awareness” when they were declared clinically dead.
Even after flatlining, many survivors recall seeing a bright, welcoming light, or their deceased relatives, or the doctors and nurses working on them in the hospital.
What’s more, many of the people who experienced consciousness after death remember not wanting to return to their bodies.
However, many scientists remain skeptical of these memories and attribute them to everything from lucid dreaming to a lack of oxygen in the brain. While more research needs to be done before we know for sure what happens when we die, it is comforting to think that our consciousness floats on as our bodies are cut, cleaned, and cremated.
Now that you know all there is to know about the mystery we call dying, read up on the 16 most unusual deaths from history. Then check out these haunting photos of people right before they died.