What Happens To Your Body When You Die?

“What happens to your body when you die?” is a frequently asked question about death. In the 21t century, most of us have little if any experience with a dead body and no idea what happens to it during the first few hours after death. Yet for 10,000 years, humans have honored the body after death with ritual and burial. Archeologists believe even Neanderthals buried their dead. For hundreds of generations, care of the body was the responsibility of the family or the tribe. Family would wash the deceased, often anointing the body with fragrant oil, dress the body and arrange for friends and family to view the deceased. Why have we given up these intimate rituals?

The Biology of What Happens to Your Body When You Die

The modern death trade makes it easy for us to ignore the realities of death. It is rare that we are around someone who is at death’s doorstep. People die in hospitals and nursing homes or hospices with round-the-clock care. It is not necessary for family to be present all the time. Often when the hospital notifies the family that time is short, family members cannot arrive before the patient dies. My brother and I waited for my sister for an hour after my mother died in the hospital. When my sister arrived, she covered up the body with a sheet because she did not want to see her “looking like that.” Frankly, with all the tubes removed and her body at rest, she looked more natural to me an hour after she died that an hour before, but many people feel this way. So let’s look at what actually happens.

Whether at home or in an institution, what happens to your body when you die is biologically similar.. The heart ceases to beat; respiration stops and all of the muscles relax, including the jaw, so the mouth often falls open. The sphincters lose tension, so the body may pass fluids and waste. Even the skin relaxes so bones and joints may seem more prominent. Chris Raymond details these changes in an article at verywellhealth.com. He also points out that recent research suggests that the brain may continue to function for at least 10 minutes after death.

The body cools immediately after death, and continues to lose heat over the next 12 to 24 hours. Because the blood stops circulating, the skin grows pale and within a few hours, the body begins to stiffen. Rigor mortis is complete within 12 hours or so, but then, the body begins to relax as chemical changes begin the process of decomposition.

You might think of it this way:

There are three phases of change related to what happens to your body when you die: Immediately after death:

1. Phase 1: Muscles relax; the body starts to cool and grow pale.
2. Phase 2: In a few hours, the body begins to stiffen reaching full rigor mortis in 12 hours or so.
3. Phase 3: The muscles loosen again as the body begins the long process of decomposition.

Care of the remains immediately after death in a hospital or nursing home

What happens to your body when you die depends, to some extent, on where the death occurs. Today, since most people die in hospitals or nursing homes, the family has no little or no role in the care of the body. Before anyone sees it, a nurse may wash and groom the body, covering it with a sheet, leaving only the face and hands visible. When the family finishes saying good-bye, the hospital calls a mortuary that picks up the body as soon as possible. Recently, however, I attended a death in an ICU where the nurses performed a brief ceremony. The family anointed the body with lavender oil on the head, hands, feet and heart of their loved one while the nurses read a script about gratitude for the life of the deceased. It was an intimate moment and much appreciated by the family.

A funeral home or mortuary handles the washing and dressing of the body once it leaves a hospital or nursing home. At the funeral home, you can arrange to visit the body in in a special room, or view it at an open-casket funeral. You might choose to view the body for a number of reasons. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross believed that spending a few minutes with the body makes easier to face and accept the death. After my father died, we were able to see my father in a “slumber room,” at Forest Lawn on the night before his funeral. I spent a half an hour or so there with him, just saying good-bye and tucking a pack of cigarettes and a can of beer in the coffin. For me, it was a sweet moment. For others, it helps to see that the person really is not there anymore. The body is all that remains.

Care of the body at home after death

If someone dies at home, care of the body can be an important part of the experience. You do not have to rush the body out the door. Most states allow you to keep the body at home for several days. You can check the exact number for your state, although most of us would probably not keep it for days. You do have to report the death to the coroner’s office and follow the rules and regulations as required. In the stories I have collected, people often keep the body overnight or for a day or two, sometimes doing very little but sitting with the deceased or talking to the body.
For centuries, however, families have cared for the body of their loved ones with love and respect. The Canadian virtual hospice offers simple instructions for positioning the body at home. You have to arrange the body in the first few hours after death, before it begins to stiffen, and it generally requires four to six people to move and turn a body. They also outline directions for washing and dressing the body on their website.

Washing and dressing the body

You can wash the body in a regular bed, but a hospital bed or narrow table is best, and you should wear gloves and be sure the body there are absorbent towels or pads under the body since it may release fluids or waste. You begin by washing the person’s face and closing the eyes. If they do not stay closed, you can place a cloth over them using a small weight, like a bag of seeds or beans. You can close the mouth with a rolled up washcloth under the neck or by tying a soft scarf around the head. As the body stiffens, you will be able to remove the weights and the scarf.
You might also want to wash the person’s hair or shave a man’s face. You can wash the whole body with a cloth and a bit of soap, beginning with the arms and legs, and then the front and back of the trunk. You can add lotion, oil, or a special fragrance once the body is dried. The way to dress the body is to cut a shirt or dress up the back, to just below the collar, and then put the arms through the sleeves before pulling the neck over the head.

To summarize:

1. Position the body in the first few hours before it becomes too stiff.
2. Place the body on towels or pads to wash and dress it.
3. Begin with the face, arms and legs, then the trunk and back.
4. When you dress the body, slit a shirt or dress down the back, put the arms in the clothing and then pull the neck over the head.

Bringing the body home after death in a hospital or nursing home

What happens to your body when you die is also at the discretion of your family. If the person dies in a hospital or nursing home, you can bring the body home if the family wishes or if you have left instructions to do this. This is entirely legal, and some funeral directors now offer transportation from a hospital or nursing facility to home for families that want to care for the body themselves. There are also funeral homes where the family can participate in the washing and dressing of the body at their facilities.

As people live longer but die more often of chronic diseases and long-term problems, more of them will undoubtedly die at home, offering both the challenge and the opportunity to honor the deceased with the intimate rituals that have accompanied the death of loved ones throughout the ages. So often people say “I don’t want to remember her (him) like that,” especially if the person has died after a long illness that has ravaged the body. On the other hand, if you have watched someone suffer for a long time, it can be comforting and helpful to see that person finally at peace and to see that the person is no longer in pain and misery, easing the way for the expression of grief, love and remembrance.