For the majority of us, contact with the bodies of people who have passed away begins and ends with the sad occasion of a funeral.
And even then, what we usually get is either an urn with the person’s cremated remains, or a body laid out neatly in a casket, having been carefully prepared for the occasion by a funeral home.
What happens to bodies naturally, after they have had their grand encounter with death? What if they don’t get cremated or choose to become embalmed, so as to delay the process of decomposition and keep them “fit” for viewing for longer?
Under natural conditions — for example, if the body is left out in a natural environment, or placed in a shallow grave — a lifeless body begins to slowly disintegrate, until only the bones are left for future archeologists to dig up.
In this Spotlight, we describe the process of decomposition and explain why it can be useful to understand what happens to the body after death.
What happens in decomposition?
Although many of us may think of decomposition as synonymous with putrefaction, it is not. In fact, the decomposition of a human body is a longer process with many stages, of which putrefaction is only one part.
Decomposition is a phenomenon through which the complex organic components of a previously living organism gradually separate into ever simpler elements.
In the words of forensic scientist M. Lee Goff, it is “a continuous process, beginning at the point of death and ending when the body has been reduced to a skeleton.”
There are several signs that a body has begun its process of decomposition, Goff explains. Perhaps the three best-known ones, which are often cited in crime dramas, are livor mortis, rigor mortis, and algor mortis.
This, Goff writes, reacts “with the hemoglobin in blood to form sulfhemoglobin,” or the greenish pigment that gives dead bodies their uncanny color.
As for skin slippage — in which the skin neatly separates from the body — it might sound less disturbing once we remember that the whole outer, protective layer of our skin is, in fact, made out of dead cells.
“The outer layer of skin, stratum corneum, is dead. It is supposed to be dead and fills a vital role in water conservation and protection of the underlying (live) skin,” Goff explains.
“This layer is constantly being shed and replaced by underlying epidermis. Upon death, in moist or wet habitats, epidermis begins to separate from the underlying dermis […] [and it] can then easily be removed from the body.”
M. Lee Goff
When the skin comes clean off of a dead person’s hands, it is typically known as “glove formation.”
A phenomenon known as “marbling” occurs when certain types of bacteria found in the abdomen “migrate” to the blood vessels, causing them to assume a purple-greenish tint. This effect gives the skin on some body parts — usually the trunk, legs, and arms — the appearance of marble (hence its name).
Moreover, in instances wherein the eyes remain open after death, “the exposed part of the cornea will dry, leaving a red-orange to black discoloration,” Goff explains. This is referred to as “tache noire,” which means “black stain” in French.
Finally, there is putrefaction, which Goff calls “nature’s recycling process.” It is facilitated by the concerted actions of bacterial, fungal, insect, and scavenger agents over time, until the body is stripped of all soft tissue and only the skeleton remains.
Which is why, she writes, “[a] reminder of our fallibility is beneficial, and there is much to be gained by bringing back responsible exposure to decomposition.”
Having a clear idea of what happens to a body after death should help to remove the aura of dread surrounding the awareness of our own mortality. And, it can also help us to care for loved ones better, even beyond their final moments.
Scientists have noted that, for instance, the mistaken idea that dead bodies can easily spread disease is “a myth too tough to die,” often supported by the sensationalistic depiction of cadavers in the media.
This problem is particularly bad in the case of fatalities that are caused by natural disasters. Yet, as the dedicated World Health Organization (WHO) page clearly states, “dead bodies from natural disasters generally do not cause epidemics.”
“For over 20 years we have known that the bodies of those killed in natural disasters do not cause outbreaks of infectious diseases,” write the authors of a special report published in the Pan American Journal of Public Health.
Understanding that dead bodies do not automatically pose a threat to health, they argue, can lead to better policies surrounding death, and it can help those left behind to come to terms with their loss in a natural, progressive timeline.
We hope that the information provided in this Spotlight will help you to navigate your relationship with mortality and your own body as part of the natural world.
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