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Are You Really Dead When They Say You Are?

The Evolution of Death

The Evolution of Death

What is the one certainty of life? Death, right? But it is the least discussed of topics. People call you morbid, negative, depressed if you talk about it.

To me, since we’ve all got to face it some day, what’s the harm in touching on it once in a while?

I recently came across an article that talks about the moment of death, and what fascinated me was that the scientific community is still uncertain about the exact moment of death:

 “Most of us would agree that King Tut and the other mummified ancient Egyptians are dead, and that you and I are alive. Somewhere in between these two states lies the moment of death. But where is that? The old standby — and not such a bad standard — is the stopping of the heart. But the stopping of a heart is anything but irreversible. We’ve seen hearts start up again on their own inside the body, outside the body, even in someone else’s body. Christian Barnard was the first to show us that a heart could stop in one body and be fired up in another.

As I went on to read it, I was intrigued by the concept of life residing in various parts of the human body, not just in the brain or heart: (Warning: this gets a little gory)

“What’s alive and what’s dead breaks down when we get above the cellular level,” Sorenson says. “Pathologists don’t feel comfortable that a brain is dead until the cell walls break down. True cell death is a daylong process.”

…Cell death is far removed from brain death. As shown, brain death can be declared when only a few brain cells have actually died. Cells in the remainder of the body are alive and kicking. Brain-dead patients being sustained as beating-heart cadavers are still supplying most of their body’s cells with blood and thus oxygen, so total cell death is nowhere in sight. Cell death begins in earnest when the heart stops beating and the lungs cease to breathe. No longer being pumped through the body, the blood will drain from the blood vessels at the top of the body and collect in the lower part. The upper body will become pale, the lower body turning much darker, looking bruised. This is livor mortis.

Even at this point, however, most cells are still not dead. After the heart stops, brain cells will die in a few minutes. Muscle cells can hold on for several hours, and skin and bone cells can stay alive for days. Cells switch from aerobic (with oxygen) respiration to anaerobic (without oxygen) when the blood stops circulating. A by-product of anaerobic respiration is lactic acid, which is what makes your arm muscles hurt during arm wrestling or your legs hurt during a hard run. When you are alive, your blood flow clears out the acid, but in a dead person the body stiffens. This is rigor mortis. Rigor mortis usually begins about three hours after the heart stops and lasts thirty-six hours. Eventually all of the cells die. After rigor mortis come initial decay, putrefaction, black putrefaction, and butyric fermentation. Somewhere in these processes — taking as long as a year, depending on the conditions and the weather — is a moment of death. Where that is may be impossible to determine.

To get a better picture of what I’m talking about, read the article– because it talks not just about the moment of death, but the question of selfhood, and how important human beings really are, are we the ultimate in evolution?

Do you ever wonder about death? Do we think more about death as we grow older? What is death, really? What is the moment of death? Are you really dead when they say you are?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Rangelz says:

    There are times I wonder about death. Well, mostly about the life after death. But never in this manner. When exactly does death happen? Somehow that never interested me. The only thing I have always ended up saying is that I want someone ready to guide me on the other side when my soul leaves the body. The uncertainty is what scares me.

  • The death of the body is indeed a complex issue, but death as a finality doesn’t exist. What we are, our true self, of which most of us are unconscious of, goes on. To realise that we have to transcend the false ‘me’ , which is the true purpose of meditation and the correct use of prayer 🙂

  • thalia says:

    This article was very intriguing as I have just recently reitred from hospice work of 25 years and process my own life/death journey forward.

  • What a deep subject!

    Do you ever wonder about death? Wonder? No. I’m in an ongoing state of discovery about death. When I was growing up I was terrified of going to Hell. When I was in my twenties, I felt better about myself, and thought about acceptance. These days I think about the emphasis on breath in yoga, and I have this sneaky feeling that when we die, our last breath is us leaving our bodies.

    Do we think more about death as we grow older? Once you had a friend or relative die it becomes part of your world view. As a subject on its own? It comes and goes for me.

    What is death, really? Change from one form to another.

    What is the moment of death? For physical death, I’m going to stick with the medical answer of the moment that blood flow to the brain stops. Spiritually, I don’t think we die. Emotionally, I think we can go through some phases where if we’re not dead, we’re burned down, but the good thing is that plants do come back from ashes.

    Are you really dead when they say you are? Physically? Dead as a doornail. Plant a tree and make something useful out of the body. I once had a friend who was an archaeologist say that you should never, ever cremate a body, because archaeologists will want to study your remains hundreds of years from now 🙂 ! Spiritually? Nope.

  • Abhilash says:

    Hi, You should definitely read some Indian vedic texts about death. the whole process has been technically explained.

  • Roo says:

    Really interesting! Thank you

  • beetleypete says:

    A very thought-provoking article, and it obviously hit a nerve (unintended pun) with your readers. When I worked as a paramedic for half my life, I became accustomed to death. I was left believing that there is a ‘spark’ in humans. Once that is gone, the body loses any comparison to a living person, I am not religious, but this may be what some refer to as a soul. To me, it was about the eyes, which always tell you if there is anything left inside.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

  • bronxboy55 says:

    I think about this a lot. The brain maintains its connections and memories for a while after being deprived of blood and oxygen. Maybe it keeps right on thinking, too. Does that mean people can hear themselves being pronounced dead? It’s possible.

  • Although the body dies and decays, the spirit lives on. You can never really die!

  • Thank you for liking “America’s Ancient Past: Part 1.” Yes, I wonder about death, but I do not think about it constantly. The article that you cite in this post, however, makes me realize that the moment of death is not so easy to determine, especially when cells in other parts of the body do not stop functioning at the same time that brain cells do. Perhaps the varying rates of cell death in the human body make it possible for people who were declared dead to suddenly come back to life after a day or a few days.

  • symonae says:

    I have wondered about death. I’m 24 and I think of death sometimes; not that I want to die just yet, but that it cannot be avoided. As I grow older, I’m sure to think on death a little more often. After the death of my aunt last November, I have thought more on life. When I read of death or anything about dying, I think of how I’ll go and leave this earth.

  • tsf36 says:

    Thought provoking. I lost my Mom in Feb, due to complications from C.O.P.D. She was on a vent but awake and aware.Unlike some she wen’t peaceful and fast. I remember staying in the room long after she had gone and thinking what if she can still hear us. Yes, grief driven I know. I personal feel like there is death of the soul or intellectual person and then there is cell death. I loved what you wrote it gives me and others food for thought. .

  • I think it is a wonderful and fascinating subject. Many beliefs are that it takes 3 days for complete separation. I am one who would prefer nothing is touched or done to my body for those 3 days but that is not easily accomplished unless you run away to die. lol A friend of mine died last year and she wasn’t found for 5 days, some thought that was terrible. Since she and I shared many beliefs I was happy she wasn’t disturbed in the process and I spoke to her shortly after I discovered which was possible on the 6th day. Believe it or not, I don’t often speak to dead people.

    • Damyanti says:

      3 days for complete separation. That sounds like a story title. Your comment will stay with me, and who knows, some day I’ll have to acknowledge its inspiration for a story.

    • birdpond says:

      Makes me wonder about animals, and our companion animals especially. Would they benefit from the caregiver staying with them after they’ve been put to sleep or have passed away naturally, or had a traumatic injury? Should we stay with the body or take it with us rather than allow the vet to whisk it away in a few minutes? Is your beloved companion aware of your presence on some level, and if there is a measure of awareness and life still there, will he or she feel abandoned if you leave before 2-3 days have passed?

      Makes me also feel bad for my loved ones (human, furred or feathered) from whom I turned away in anguish once the spark had left their eyes. Maybe, in my grief, I failed them at the end. I hate to consider that.

      Human, non-human, if there is a soul, we all have it, and it deserves respect, no matter what form the body may take – in life, or in death.

      • Certainly animals as well. One reason why we hold vigils, and say prayers for the departed. I would like it if my loved ones said prayers for my crossing/transitioning. This is why the Tibetan monks study the bardo so intensely,they prepare for death all their lives. The more conscious we are while living and while nightly sleeping, the more conscious we will be when we leave this vehicle. We want to be able to direct our souls.

        Recently in my group meditations, I saw another (not the one mentioned above) departed friend, and my departed cat.He did not communicate but he was there. I did hug my friend, and tell her how much I missed her.


  • Sue Elvis says:

    I often write about death. When you have had a child die in your arms, death is no longer remote and something to think about in the future. It becomes part of your life. Personally, I think it should be spoken about more often. Interesting post!

  • Anita says:

    Death is a topic that we know so little about even after our technological strides!
    Yes, I have pondered about what happens after death…
    Great points here, Damyanti 🙂

  • Well, thats really convincing. I agree that we fail to see death as a decay process, both in the phisiological perspective and social perspectice.
    A coma patient is socially dead as long as the condition prevails, even when the body does the ordinary job.
    I think actual death is when the brain cells are dead, which is what you told take place in a few hours after heart/lungs go off.

  • nakularora says:

    I rarely see people writing so frankly about death.. The post was a good read, you have a really interesting blog.. 🙂

  • nirsd says:

    How about the recent claim that scientists can stall even reverse near death situations by putting the patient in suspended animation…

  • Death intrigues you. It leaves you curious and demanding answers. The only reason we want to enjoy life is because we don’t know what awaits us. Is death just the beginning of another unknown cycle? I guess it’s best we don’t know. 🙂

  • lexacain says:

    As a horror and thriller writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about death and watching “morbid” and “gory” true crime reality shows. I guess it’s natural for most people to be afraid of death – the great unknown. It’s rather ironic that religious people who believe in an afterlife are very often the ones who’re most afraid of death. I really appreciated all your info. I didn’t know about the lactid acid/rigor mortis connection. Thanks!

  • Wow…I wrote a long reply and the connection messed up and I lost it….GRRR!!!!

  • Eve Shay says:

    My sister and I have this thing. We say that death really isn’t all that bad! Not that we want it, but we say that the next life is whatever you make it. Whether or not it’s what you say (or if there even is a next life), you’ll find out someday either way. Our personal idea, (more like a fantasy story) is that everyone goes more or less to the same place and has a fine time just being. Whether that means hanging out, watching movies or reading alone, it never get old.

  • tamellu says:

    Thinking about death should be normal in my opinion as it is an unavoidable part of our existence, but we’re considered gloomy, depressed or crazy if we think too much or too often about it. Actually when you give it a second thought, it’s much crazier to go on pretending that everything is and will be great till the end of time, but this is what is socially acceptable. I suffer from panic attacks and the worst ones were all like mini deaths coming my way, it feels as if you’re most definitely dying while being fully conscious without any chance to do something about what’s going on – from there on, I developed PD and yes, death is and has been a lot on my mind. I also had a strange and inexplicable experience when I fainted from stomach pains – it’s usually short and transitory and you’re semi-conscious of your environment, but in my case I was “out” for something like 45 minutes and I have no idea what was going on around me. The only memory I had was of some weird energy – I saw no images, nothing was material, everything was energy, me included, and it felt really good… next I knew was tumbling down at some horrible speed and sort of regaining sense of my body and where I was… but the first phrase I uttered was that being “there” was so good that I didn’t want to “wake up”. That was the very same phrase I later heard from a relative dying from cancer when she fainted and then regained consciousness shortly before passing away – that it was so good that she never ever wanted to “come back”. On the other hand, I have a neighbor who was declared clinically dead – no vital signs present – after lying a whole night in a pool of water in winter time and placed in the city morgue, where he woke up completely terrorized. What is the fine line that divides life from death is hard to tell – the weird thing for example is that even after death nails and hair still grow a bit, which is the evidence that there is still some stage of life in that body pronounced gone for good.

  • Great article, thanks for this. In one of my careers (as an experimental psychologist) I had the privilege of attending pathology meetings about donated brains from patients we had studied. I was totally riveted by the connections between the cells and behaviour of people I had known. With my other hat on, the novel I am in the process of self-publishing is an upbeat love story about suicide and assisted dying.

  • Peter Nena says:

    I think about death often. Everyday. As a matter of fact. My stories have death in them. I write often. Also, death is the only thing I’m certain will happen. The other things are merely probabilities. Functions with constantly shifting variables. But death . . . if a person truly sets to kill himself, he’ll be gone for good, and there are no ifs. Yet I don’t know what it is. It just is.
    I love the image of the grim reaper, though. I think the blade is cool. Have a great week, Damyanti.

  • Patricia Ann says:

    I witnessed death up close and personal. If you visit my blog, My Precious Life, you will find a chapter called “The Final Breath”. It is an excerpt from my book which has just been published. Death fascinates me and I look forward to my own with joy and thanksgiving.

  • Well done for broaching a subject that is often avoided. It was very interesting and opens further thought on when does a person actually die. On reflection for me, I continue to think that brain death has to be the deciding factor as it is the brain that makes the person who they are. The body is just a receptacle in which the personality lives.

  • Andrew says:

    It all really depends upon what you define as “life” and “self,” I suppose. I would say that death is the point where the body can no longer be brought back to animation; that, then, extends to all lifeforms, not just lifeforms with a “self.”

  • “The moment of death”…
    I wonder if this specific moment is exactly the same (time-wise) for every human being? Is it dependent on the manner in which a person passes on…?
    I also wonder about the “near-death experience”… and where does the “your-entire-life-flashes-before-your-eyes” moment fit in?
    Really interesting post!

  • hya21 says:

    I have wanted to write on the subject of death, and while it probably wouldn’t be anything too deep, I understand the fear of being considered morbid – given that I’ve had two recent posts that have skirted the subject. But death is a part of life n’est ce pas?

  • Julia Lund says:

    I have thought about death for as long as I can remember, even as a very young child. My first encounter was the death of my grandfather closely followed by the much loved family dog. My mother explained that dying was like going to sleep and not waking again. I still have nights when falling asleep seems a daunting prospect.
    As for physical death, not being a scientist I hadn’t realised that there wasn’t a clearly defined line: I assumed no heartbeat + no breath = body dead. As for death in the context of spirituality, my faith leads me to believe that there is no end, just taking the next step into eternity to discover the reality of the God I only understand imperfectly in my body of breath and bone and blood and cells.

  • Maybe science has changed our perception of death. I believe it is when the soul leaves the body, but we have the capacity to bring people back through resusitation. Knowing about cell death, brain death just allows us to feel that there is still hope to keep loved ones alive instead of just letting them go. But in the end, I don’t believe that is ultimately up to us.

  • tabularin0a says:

    The thing that complicates “death” is no one has come back from it and retell a first hand experience about it. Those that had experienced the so-called “near death experience” obviously did not die. In the end, what we know about it is secondary as a third party witnesses.

  • I think about death a lot – not all the time, but I am aware that I am mortal and I won’t be around forever! As a Christian I believe in life after death, but that doesn’t mean to say I’m at all clear on what happens at the moment of death. Until we get to that point, no one does! Thank you for an interesting, thought-provoking post. 🙂

  • Writing Vile, I’m constantly exploring death in a very VERY morbid way. It’s interesting to think about the spirituality or science of death as opposed to viewing it through the eyes of one of my sociopathic villains.

  • Passions says:

    There is great science to even the most remote topics of all: death

  • bushv1970 says:

    It’s hard to determine when a person is truly dead because as the article pointed out there are parts of the body that still are living. For example…my mother-in-law suffered a heart attack and a possible stroke. They said she was brain dead, but they kept her on the ventilator until we were able to get to the hospital. Once we arrived the doctors informed us of her condition. My husband and brother-in-law had to make a decision to take her off the ventilator. Once she was removed from the ventilator, her heart continued to beat and it was hours before it actually stopped beating and at that time she was pronounced deceased. Although the person is said to have died, the nerves are still alive and that’s why you can sometimes see them still moving or they may twitch from time to time. I don’t think we will ever know the real moment a person dies, because the body is so complex.

  • ccyager says:

    Oh, very interesting, Damyanti! There have been studies also trying to determine when the “soul” leaves the body, as documented in the book “Spook” by Mary Roach. When my father died years ago, and after I’d experienced caring for the elderly as they passed on, I found the book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. Buddhism has a perspective on death that would seem to accept and respect the slowness of cell death. I found it to be very comforting.

    In American society, there is a view about death that talking about it is negative and we are a positive culture. That doesn’t respect a person’s humanity, however. I suspect the fear of death here is more about a fear of pain and suffering rather than a fear of passing on.

    Thanks for posting this article! I plan to read it carefully when I have the time to concentrate on it.


  • I do think often about death. I helped my Pops to die and I know that my Mom will join him one day. Death does not scare me. I have faith in God and I know that there is a heaven. I tell how I know that in my post I believe death comes when your Spirit leaves your body. Thanks for an interesting article and topic of discussion.

  • mgm75 says:

    Great article thanks, I sometimes want to touch on the subject of death but haven’t yet come up with a suitable subject. Perhaps this one will give me some ideas.

  • I’ll admit it’s not something I want to think about, despite knowing where I’m going. Actually it’s more the death of others that bothers me. Because once this body dies, my real life begins.

  • A very insightful take on death and the soul feels liberated with the cells not dying immediately when the body perishes. I love the idea of romanticizing death:)

  • Rasma R says:

    Too much living to do and too many things to enjoy to think about what is the inevitable end anyway. It will come soon enough and I know there will be a world beyond.

  • JF says:

    No, I don’t think about death at all. Many people close to my heart left us. Where are they? Maybe we’ll meet again. We’ll see.

  • This is an extremely complex subject. As a deeply spiritual person myself, I think about death all the time — the two are intertwined — but I more drawn by the idea of transcendence. 😉 Shakespeare says, “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,” which is what you’re doing here.

  • very interesting post. some cultures it is weeks before a person is considered dead or, at least, gone

  • davidprosser says:

    So now I’m thinking, when they turn life support off because there is brain death, is it actually murder because other parts of the body are still alive? Actually a very thought provoking piece Damyanti.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

  • Great article and very thought provoking.

  • maverickbird says:

    Very very thought provoking post. Death intrigues me as a phenomenon. Tried seeking reasons and concepts of it by reading, life regression techniques etc, but it’s still such a grey area. Clinical and biological death have such a thin borderline yet are so distinct. Loved this post.

  • I would tend to think that there is no universal definition of the moment of death…Each person’s body probably has a different capacity for revival, not only from a biological function standpoint but the persistence of energy within the body at various ages and in various environments…It is likely that it is only knowable in retrospect what that capacity is…

  • neelkanth says:

    Truly a beautiful post talking about life after death.

  • This is such a great point for thought and discussion! You’ve certainly got me thinking!

  • Lisa Thomson says:

    I read Mary Roach’s book Stiff a few years back and found it fascinating. I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in what happens in death and beyond.

  • good post. the line is hazy, like where the sea starts and the sand stops on the ocean. Where is it really? And science in general wants a clear cut answer but it is always hazy. Just out of reach. In the merky depths. So close to touching to reaching a final answer and yet there is always one more question.

  • I’ve often thought about that moment when we die. Is it like the ending to the film American Beauty, where we find that the whole story is actually Kevin Spacey’s character’s life flashing before his eyes?
    In that last moment, will time actually seem suspended (as it does when things go by as if in slow motion during a scare or trauma) so that it might seem to last an eternity? The Buddhist and Hindu holy men might have it right, if that’s the case. Spending their lives in peaceful contemplation so that their last eternal thought should be one of joy and not fear, would seem like a good idea.
    But as to your question, I think when the brain’s synapses cease and we lose complete consciousness, that might be the only time of death that would matter to me.

  • jazmynjb says:

    If you think about life and death and really analyze their meanings, you can see how close they are. Directly comparing them, the thought can arise that; there can’t be life without death and there cannot be death without life. I personally think death is fascinating. And like you said, if I were to say that out loud someone might think I’m morbid or depressed. Death to me is peace. Where your mind is free from worry or doubt. Who knows if we are really dead when we are pronounced dead, we’ll just have to see when the time comes. (I was going to put a smiley face at the end…but it just seemed too creepy. haha)

    • VRNR says:

      You’re so right. Death reminds us about life (how precious and important life is). If we didn’t care about life, then death woundn’t mean so much to us either. So life and death seems to go hand in hand.

  • Geraint Isitt says:

    In truth, I don’t think too much about death. Most days, I try not to think too much regardless. But this was incredibly fascinating and I will read the entire article (although I will admit, science is beyond me most times).

  • Linuxgal says:

    Jesus said, “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” We cannot eliminate our fear of death and it is not really desirable to do so, it is a defense mechanism much like pain. But Jesus teaches us not to worry about death.

  • I have to say this is truly a beautiful post. I have never considered that a point of death other than brain death. It seems to me that the death in popular conception (and my own) is when the brain fails to produce consciousness past the point of recovery. I wouldn’t include sleep because while we may not be conscious, a “recovery” (in this case just waking up) method is possible. As medical technology advances, the average moment of death may be extended to the degree that consciousness can be preserved. As for what this consciousness thing is that the technology tries to preserve, I don’t think it has to be this special spiritual state of awareness. Rather, I believe consciousness is the simple result of the brain chemistry that lies in the brain. To have all of the components in a brain functioning properly entails consciousness. However while I find it interesting to think about which parts of the body die at what times to consider when the entity that is “me” wholly dies, nothing but the aforementioned part matters. If I lose a finger, I’m not in anyway dead. If I were to lose all of my body except have my brain preserved with artificial blood circulation (I have no idea how it would be done, not really the point though) then I wouldn’t consider myself dead. Maybe in a romantic sense, lacking the grand qualities of life, but not in a physical one. Those are my thoughts on the matter anyway, but I’d love to discuss it further. Great post,


  • Willy Nilly says:

    Death is assigned to a person by the living because the assigned can’t speak for themselves. I consider death my constant companion, a true worthy friend. Death will not abandon you, cheat you, leave your love unrequited. It doesn’t demand anything from you, nor does it leave you in anguish or pain. Arrival at death’s deliverance is merely life’s last chance at you. But, in death’s hands you are delivered from your life’s work to the solitude of eternal silence. To believe otherwise is to hope your beliefs are delivered from life intact. With death as a true friend, you can agree there is no hurry to end the relationship and with that you can concentrate on making your life more meaningful, without fear of the day it will end.

  • So metal. Cool article, and very thought provoking. Just where the line is between total irreversible death, brain death, and brain damage is a very interesting question. Never knew that about rigor mortis being due to tissues that are still trying to keep going. Thanks

  • Ashish kumar says:

    a different topic with interesting facts. I like it as it is unique in its own sense.
    will definately read the full article which you have mentioned.

    few unanswered questions which you have asked at the end of the article will be quite an interesting thing to answer. I would like to add one more question to your list which i always have in my mind and didn’t got an answer yet… i.e ” what happens to a person when he/she is dead? how it feels after death? “…

    and lastly i would like to give thanks to you for such a nice post… 🙂

  • Sammy D. says:

    Damyantiwrites -what a provocative article and questions.

    I just finished reading Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, M.D. And plan to write a post or two after gathering my thoughts. You (as usual in a good way) bring up a whole new set of questions on elements of death and dying.

  • unrealya says:

    I loved this post and found it fascinating and very useful. I’ll be keeping the article you cited in my research files, so thank you! As a neuroscientist, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the true moment of death, particularly in the brain. It seems so clear cut from a physiological perspective, until you read about the intricacies of true cell death (apoptosis). The more scientists know and discover, the more we know remains to be explained. And some things defy explanation, no matter how much we think we know!

  • faranastus says:

    Speaking entirely as a lifelong spiritualist…
    Death ?
    No biggie…in fact, I’m looking forward to it.


  • Have you ever read ‘There’s More to Life Than This’ by Theresa Caputo!? Super eye opening! I’d also be curious to read/see the movie. ‘Heaven is for Real.’

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