10 Things That Happen to You When You Die

When someone dies, their body transitions from life to death and undergoes significant changes. This can feel overwhelming and scary to you, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning more about it is the best way to feel less uneasy with this transition. 

Here are ten things that happen to you when you die: 

  1. Death is declared. 
  2. All of the muscles in your body relax. 
  3. Your body temperature decreases. 
  4. Your body grows paler. 
  5. Parts of your skin start to look bruised. 
  6. Your body stiffens. 
  7. Your body goes through secondary flaccidity. 
  8. You may or may not be embalmed.
  9. Your body is buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of.  
  10. Your body decomposes. 

In the rest of this article, I’ll explain each of these things in greater detail. Understanding what happens may help you feel better about yourself or a loved one aging. 

1. Death Is Declared

After you die, you must be declared legally dead. This occurs when a doctor or other professional evaluates the body and determines that the brain or heart is not functioning and that nothing can reverse this damage or cessation. Doctors will also check for your pulse, if you’re breathing, or if your pupils contract in response to bright light. 

Legal death officially recognizes you as dead, and typically, a death certificate is given to your family so they can make an insurance claim or apply for probate. Your death will be registered in the civil registry.  

If you die in some sort of accident or experience a health emergency that leads to your death, EMTs usually look for five signs of irreversible death before they declare you legally dead: 

  • Decapitation. There is currently no way to reattach a head to a body and have it function again, so decapitation is a clear sign of death. 
  • Decomposition. Flesh can die on a live person, but when rotting flesh is accompanied by an absence of breath and a heartbeat, a person is declared dead. 
  • Postmortem lividity. This is when the blood stops being pumped through the body and settles at the lowest points, resulting in skin discoloration.   
  • Postmortem rigidity. Muscles get stiff after death. This is also known as rigor mortis
  • Burned beyond recognition. This sign is pretty self-explanatory. When a burn victim is so badly burned that they no longer resemble a human being, they are probably dead.  

2. All of the Muscles in Your Body Relax

Soon after your death, all the muscles in your body begin to relax in a process called “primary flaccidity.” This occurs for one or two hours. Because the muscles in your body are relaxing, your jaw may fall open, your limbs become more flexible, and your body will flatten over any surface it’s on.

During this relaxation period, you will most likely release anything in your bowels or bladder because the sphincters relax. Your skin will also start to sag, making your body look bonier, especially on your face and hips.   

3. Your Body Temperature Decreases 

When you die, your body cools from the average temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) until it matches the temperature of the surrounding environment in a process called “algor mortis.” This process continues for approximately six hours postmortem, but various factors influence how quickly or slowly a body cools. These include: 

  • The body temperature.
  • The temperature of the environment. 
  • If the body is submerged in water. 
  • If the body is clothed. 
  • How much body fat the body has. 
  • If the person was male or female because females retain body heat for longer. 
  • How old they were at the time of death. 
  • How much air movement the body is exposed to. 
  • How dry or humid the environment is. 
  • How the body was positioned at the time of death. 

Forensic scientists can often make an educated guess about the time of death based on the body’s temperature when they begin their examination. 

4. Your Body Grows Paler 

In a process called pallor mortis, your body will become paler approximately fifteen minutes after death because blood drains from your smaller veins and stops going through the capillaries. If you have light skin already, this is most likely the first thing people will notice. It is less noticeable in people with darker skin. 

The capillaries are located in the second and third layers of skin, and when the heart stops beating, oxygenated blood cannot reach them. Without the red hue of the blood in these parts of your skin, your skin will get paler and paler. 

Funeral flowers placed on the grave at All souls holiday.

5. Parts of Your Skin Start To Look Bruised

The next major postmortem change is livor mortis. Your heart isn’t pumping blood through your body anymore, so it starts accumulating in the blood vessels closest to a surface because of gravity. 

The pooling blood results in skin discoloration that often looks like bruising. This change is visible approximately one hour after death and becomes permanent six to eight hours postmortem. 

The coloration of your skin may look like a bruise, but it is different. A bruise forms due to a blood vessel rupture, whereas livor mortis is caused by pooling.  

6. Your Body Stiffens

Your body will grow stiff three hours after death because of rigor mortis. This stiffening is caused by reduced adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and lactate build-up. This combination results in your body being unable to release the actin-myosin bond. This process will eventually affect all muscles, but according to Nysten’s Rule, it does not begin in all the muscles simultaneously. 

This change is noticeable in smaller muscles first, such as the jaw and eyelids. Then, it continues to all the muscles in your face and neck. After this, your chest, arms, abdomen, and legs will start to stiffen. Your fingers and toes will be the last to harden. This rigidity lasts for around twelve hours until secondary flaccidity begins. However, if you die in a hot environment, it will take less time for secondary flaccidity to occur.   

The following factors affect how quickly or slowly rigor mortis occurs: 

  • Age. Typically, young children don’t show signs of rigor mortis because they have less muscle mass. 
  • Physique.
  • The temperature of the surrounding environment.
  • If the death was caused by disease.
  • If a bacterial infection caused the death.

7. Your Body Goes Through Secondary Flaccidity

Even after you die, the cells in your body continue to undergo chemical changes. Because of this, your muscles will start to loosen one to three days after you die. The muscles loosen in the opposite direction that they become rigid, starting with the fingers and toes and ending with the eyelids and jaw. 

Your body returns to a flaccid state because of the breakdown of actin and myosin bonds and binding sites. This breakdown goes quicker in a hot environment and slower in a cold one, so it’ll take longer for your body to return to flaccidity if it is cold. 

8. You May or May Not Be Embalmed

Embalming is a process that has been performed throughout history. It slows down the body’s decomposition, so loved ones can arrange a viewing or an open-casket funeral. Whether you get embalmed or not is ultimately up to you and your loved ones, although some states have certain time requirements and embalming laws

Most of the time, if you are buried promptly or cremated, you aren’t legally required to undergo embalming. However, if your body needs to cross state lines or if it needs to be transported on a common carrier, some states require embalming first. 

Furthermore, some funeral homes require embalming for public viewing of the body because the procedure helps the body maintain a clear identity for longer, sanitizes it, and hides some of the more disturbing signs of death, such as discoloration. 

The basic steps of embalming are as follows: 

  1. The embalmer verifies death and removes all clothes, jewelry, IVs, and catheters. 
  2. The body is sanitized and massaged to relieve rigor mortis. 
  3. The eyes and mouth are sealed. 
  4. Embalming fluid is injected into the body via the carotid artery or an abdomen incision. 
  5. The embalmer washes the body, applies cosmetics, styles the body, and dresses it in clothing selected by the deceased or the family.  

As mentioned above, embalming is not required by law in most cases, so this may not happen when you die if you express this wish during life or if your family chooses to opt out. Instead of embalming, your body may be buried immediately, cremated directly, or refrigerated. 

9. Your Body Is Buried, Cremated, or Otherwise Disposed Of

Your body will be buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of, depending on your wishes. Cremation is currently the most common method for body disposal in the United States, with burial in second place. 

Whether you are buried or cremated is ultimately up to you, your religion, any environmental concerns you may have, and your family’s budget for the funeral and disposal. 

If you choose to be buried, your body will go through the following steps: 

  1. Your body is cleaned and possibly embalmed.
  2. Your body is placed in a casket.
  3. Depending on your family’s wishes, they may display your body during the funeral service.
  4. Your casket is closed, placed in a grave, and buried.

Alternatively, if you choose cremation, the following will happen: 

  1. The crematory prepares your body for cremation by removing jewelry, prosthetics, and mechanical medical devices.
  2. Your body is placed in a cremation chamber and exposed to extreme temperatures.
  3. Your body burns to ash over the course of two or three hours.
  4. Your ashes are put in a container and given to your family.

Burial and cremation are the most common ways to dispose of a body, but they aren’t your only options. Here are some alternatives: 

  • Donating your body to science.
  • Getting buried in a burial pod, so your body becomes organic fertilizer. 
  • Opting for alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based dissolution process. 
  • Sea burial. 

Ultimately, your body has to be disposed of in some way. 

10. Your Body Decomposes

Your body will continue to decompose in the casket if you choose to get buried. Human bodies go through five stages of decomposition. The following table outlines these stages: 

Stage of Decomposition What Happens to the Body 
Fresh Algor mortis.Livor mortis. Rigor mortis. Greenish discoloration of the skin.Flies are attracted to the body.  
Bloating Organs and soft tissues swell due to putrefactive gasses, including methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide.  Swelling begins in the abdomen.Blisters appear on the skin. Skin becomes greatly discolored, ranging from green to black.  Maggots begin to hatch and feed on tissue. Skin begins to slip. 
Active Decay Putrefaction accelerates. Putrefactive fluids come out of orifices. Ruptured skin turns black. Hair falls out. Bacteria and insects consume the body.
Advanced Decay Bones start to become exposed. Body starts to cave in.Soft tissues have completely decomposed. Certain beetles and flies begin to consume bones and cartilage. 
Skeletal Most bones are exposed.Mites and larvae consume the hair. Bones eventually disintegrate. 

It takes approximately eighty years for bones to start to crack and disintegrate and approximately a hundred years for the body to disintegrate completely. If one were to open a casket a hundred years after the departed died, they would likely only find some liquified organs and teeth. 

Caskets slow the decomposition process, but they don’t stop it completely. Caskets with a sealing feature preserve bodies for much longer than unsealed caskets because they stop moisture from reaching the body but are more expensive. 

It is not required by law to bury a body in a container, so if your family is on a tight budget, they may choose to have your body buried without a casket. This causes the decomposition process to go faster. However, it is inevitable that your body will decompose eventually, so many don’t see the point in purchasing an expensive casket to delay the inevitable. 

The decomposition process may be frightening or disturbing to you. Still, it is important to remember that it is a natural process that every human being will eventually undergo and that it allows your body to return to materials that the earth can use in new ways. 


Was this post helpful?

Useful? Save information for later by printing or sharing.

Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

Recent Posts

Table of Contents