General Question

absalom's avatar

How does a recently dead body behave?

Asked by absalom (7542 points ) October 23rd, 2010

This might offend some, I don’t know. Question is mostly for doctors who might have some experience with this stuff.

If someone were to die in your house, for example, and if your house were far removed from any city or town so that you’d be responsible for preserving, to the best of your ability, this corpse, for perhaps half a day, what immediate effects would you be able to observe on the surface of the body?

I know that bowels are voided, etc., but what I’m curious about is how the skin, hair, eyes, mouth, fingernails and toenails react to death.

Does a dead body sweat? (I think it doesn’t, but can someone explain why?) Will it remain dry in extreme heat?

Are the fingernails and toenails discolored? Within the first eight hours?

Does the hair change at all? Is it visibly less lustrous or is that a poeticism only? Might it fall out?

Does the skin tighten or loosen or stay the same? What happens to wrinkles, if anything?

Are the veins less or more visible beneath the skin?

Does, or could, the body begin to make noises?

Other than being paler, what might the lips look like?

Do the teeth react? Gums?

If you were to prick the face of the newly dead body with a needle, would it bleed? More or less than ‘usual’? How does blood behave differently in the body after death, i.e. is it stagnant / unflowing?

If the dead person was allergic to something throughout his life, would his body react shortly after death to the things he was allergic to? Would his face still swell were a bee to sting it?

Do closed eyelids ever open on their own?

Is a person’s ‘last exhalation’ before death actually occurring before death or is it already a part of the fluidic (ex)purgation of death?

Were a woman to die during her period, would the body bleed on its own in death?

If a very, very recently dead woman were to be genitally stimulated, would orgasm or similar muscle contractions be possible?

If the dead woman is pregnant and has a visible linea nigra, does the marking stay visible after death? For how long? Does it eventually disappear? (Also: what is the earliest the linea nigra might appear in a living pregnant woman?)

Regarding pregnancy in death: how long does the fetus continue to ‘live’ after the death of its mother? Minutes, hours?

And, in turn, how does the body of a fetus respond to its own death? I imagine this would have something to do with how developed it is. Would it shrink, move, kick at all?

Your help is appreciated.

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10 Answers

CyanoticWasp's avatar

It behaves quite well, actually. It just lies there where you left it, and doesn’t say a word.

Seriously, though, if you read any of the Patricia Cornwell novels about Kay Scarpetta, (fictional) Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, she goes into great detail on all of these things.

AmWiser's avatar

I’ve only seen a dead body in a coffin which I don’t go near (for personal reasons). I have been in a house with a dead body and I can assure you that the odor from a dead body is a smell you will never forget.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I can answer some of this from my experience doing postmortem care at the hospital when a patient died. I’ve only been around dead bodies for the first few hours after death. I’d guess the longest would have been about 5 or 6 hours after death. Once the patient died, we were responsible for cleaning the body and either taking it to the morgue (if the funeral home wasn’t going to be picking it up right away) or to meet the funeral directors at the morgue so they could take the body. Occasionally the funeral directors would come up to the rooms to get the bodies. Basically, once the family was done spending time with the patient, we took the body to the morgue. The cooler temperature helps slow down the natural decaying process so that the funeral homes can properly preserve the body.

As far as what happens physically to the body, some of it depends on how the person died. There may be some purplish spots that look like bruising on whatever area was laying down (so on their back if the were laying on it or stomach/chest if they were laying on it). This is due to the blood pooling once the heart stops pumping it. If you were to prick the skin, it may bleed a little bit depending on how soon after death it was pricked. There really wouldn’t be spurting blood since the heart was no longer beating and pumping the blood. The hair and nails wouldn’t really change much right away. The skin would be cool and has always felt really clammy to me. The lips may look very light and possibly even blue depending on how they died. The body will be flaccid at first, but does start to stiffen pretty quickly after death. The skin always felt loose in my opinion. The eyelids to not close on their own. Usually they will be in whatever position they were in when the person died. If you want to close them, it’s not hard to do just by lightly pushing the lids down with your fingers. I’ve never seen them open back up once closed.

Sometimes they do excrete feces, but not always. I haven’t seen many excrete urine though. You may also hear gases moving around (and therefore what sounds like farting or burping). I have seen bodies flinch shortly after death (very shortly after death). This was explained to me as being because of final nerve impulses firing.

I don’t believe they would have any type of allergic reaction if exposed to an allergen. Allergic reactions rely on the circulation of the histamines in the body. With no pulse, there would be no way to circulate those histamines.

I’m not sure exactly what would happen as far as a woman’s period. Since it’s the shedding of the lining of the uterus, I imagine some blood may continue to flow out if it’s already been shed from the uterus.

As far as when a woman is pregnant, it definitely depends on how far along the pregnancy it. I believe the baby would die relatively quickly once the mother’s heart stopped beating and circulating blood to the baby. Since the mother’s body would be dead, it wouldn’t expel the dead child (since she would not have the contractions to due so).

I may have missed a few things, but I think that covers most of it from my personal experience. If you have to preserve a body for any time period until someone else can take care of it, it’s best to get it into some kind of refrigerated area if you can (or at least in as cool of a temperature as you can).

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

I can only speak from one experience. My sister was in her last stages of cancer, and she wanted to be home, and not in a hospital, when she passed away. I was with her body for about 5–6 hours before the funeral home arrived.

Urine/Bowels She was in adult diapers at that point, as she could no longer walk. When her body was prepared for removal, there might have been a bit of urine present, but she had been wearing it since it was last changed, so it may have come from when she was still living. There wasn’t any poop, but it makes sense, as she wasn’t eating much by that point. I suspect it would depend upon how the person died and what is in their bladder and colon.

How the skin, hair, eyes, mouth, fingernails and toenails, gums and teeth react to death There wasn’t any change in that short period, except for possibly the eyes. They were open, and no one lowered the lids. I suppose with no ability to naturally lubricate them, they dried up a bit and weren’t as vibrant. Her face cooled down rather quickly, while her body stayed warm longer because it had been under an electric blanket and stayed covered. There was no sign of sweat, even under the covers. The skin became slightly more pale, including lips.

As for hair, nails and teeth, nothing changed. Both are made up of dead cells, so there shouldn’t be any change. People have reported a growth in hair and nails after death, but it has been disproven. It may appear to do so as the body dehydrates and the skin, including gums, shrinks as it dries up.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Well.. I’m not a doctor, but I work in hospice which includes postmortem care.

There may be no issue with bowels whatsoever. It depends on the person, how and what they have eaten in the days prior to passing (many people who are terminally ill will lose their appetite quite some time before the active dying process begins.) Occasionally the bladder may release. Moving the body around will increase the likelihood of either of these things happening. As @Seaofclouds mentioned, you may hear gasses moving from the body.
The fingernails and toenails may actually discolor prior to passing. You may notice a purple or bluish tint beneath either before and after death.
I have never noticed an immediate change in the hair. A person that has passed just has a general aura about them, you can sense that there is no life in the body – and often their entire presence can look a little bit “off.”
In my experience the skin will seem loose. Particularly if it is an elderly person. The body is relaxed, the muscles are slack.. so the skin will droop accordingly. Lips and gums will appear pale, possibly cyanotic. The mouth may hang open slightly or completely, depending on their position. Mottling may occur on various parts of the body (sort of veiny, purple splotchy looking patches as blood pools near the surface of the skin.) Mottling may also occur prior to death, most commonly in the extremities, such as the hands and feet. For a short time after passing the body will remain warm and flexible, but limp. When it begins to cool and stiffen it tends to happen very quickly.
I have seen eyelids open on their own.. but never completely. They may sort of peek open just slightly after you close them. Again, as @Seaofclouds (who really covered all of the bases) said, you must close the lids yourself if the eyes are open. A gentle push with your fingertips is all that it takes. The eyes will look glassy and possibly clouded over, due to a lack of moisture as @PiedPfeffer said.
I have never dealt with a body more than a couple of hours deceased (aside from those that have been prepared), so beyond that I’m not sure.

palerider's avatar

very still except for the tightening of the tissues (rigormortis) and the expelling of pent up gases and fluids.

GeorgeGee's avatar

If you’re serious about this interest, you can find most of the answers in a good book on mortuary science such as this one:

http://books.google.com/books?id=ln8GWbfxW4EC&dq=mortuary%20science&source=gbs_similarbooks

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

You could also interview a local mortician/funeral home manager. A friend of mine did that.

grievinggrams's avatar

my infant grandson recently passed away in a childcare providers home. I saw a few signs of neglect before hand. The childcare provider said she found him blue. But when my son arrived to meet the ambulance at the ER he said my grandson was whitier then he has ever seen anyone’s skin and my grandson was very very cold. I need to know how long my grandson would have remained blue before turning white.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@grievinggrams my goodness, I’m so sorry. :( I’m not sure of the answer to your question, you might have better luck asking a new question, so that people will see it and hopefully be able to answer.

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