Paths To Knowledge (dot Science)

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What happens after you die?

Posted by pwl on July 29, 2010

What happens after you die? Nature is a harsh mistress indeed.

What happens after death is very clear, your body rots as it’s being recycled by Nature and “you” are permanently and utterly obliterated… you cease to be… no magical heaven, no roasting hell, you just cease to be… when your brain stops working… that’s it… nothing more.

What happens when you take something apart, such as a car? As you begin to remove non-critical pieces it’s still a car, you can take the roof off and it’s still a car, you can take the hub caps off and it’s still a car, you can even take the doors off and it’s still a car; taking the wheels off and while it’s still a car it’s now a disabled car… but at some point as you remove parts – critical parts – it’s no longer a car; and if as you take those parts off the car and destroy them so there is no chance of putting it back together either… that’s what happens with humans and other living things… at some point a critical component or critical components are removed or cease functioning that are critical for it to be alive and that’s it… that is the moment you cease to be – when your brain stops functioning, just like a car ceases to be….

Now to be sure, did the car go to “car heaven”? Nope, it simple ceased to be, it vanished… it’s car-ness is no more… it existed from the point that it’s critical parts made it a car and was a car while it was a car and then it ceased to be after it was disassembled at that critical moment when enough parts where removed that it ceased to be…

Enjoy being alive. It is all that matters. Everything else is meaningless.

There is no mystery about death. Only people who don’t want to face it or those that don’t like it make it mysterious and invent alleged gods and being saved by jesus to a futile pitiful attempt to defy the objective reality of Nature in it’s harshness and cold fact of obliterating end of life.

Science wins over mythology. If after reading the attached article/document you still believe in the resurrection of jesus you know that you’re highly delusional and denying the facts of life in the objective reality of Nature.

BE. Even BE kind to others. For no other reason than the shocking horror of our own ceasing to be.

Here is the science:

Beyond the Grave – Understanding Human Decomposition
by Arpad A. Vass, Senior Staff Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee in Forensic Anthropology.
Reprinted from MICROBIOLOGY TODAY, page 190, VOL 28/NOV 2001.
This verbatim copy below ( PDF version Beyond the Grave – understanding human decomposition – no photos v1) of the text has been sanitized of the horrific graphic photos.
Warning: original version with highly graphic photos of actual bodies decomposing. PDF: Not suitable for most people.

Human decomposition begins approximately 4 minutes after death has occurred. The onset is governed by a process called autolysis – or self-digestion. As cells of the body are deprived of oxygen, carbon dioxide in the blood increases, pH decreases and wastes accumulate which poison the cells. Concomitantly, unchecked cellular enzymes (lipases, proteases, amylases, etc.) begin to dissolve the cells from the inside out, eventually causing them to rupture, and releasing nutrient-rich fluids. This process begins and progresses more rapidly in tissues that have a high enzyme content (such as the liver) and a high water content such as the brain, but eventually affects all the cells in the body. Autolysis usually does not become visually apparent for a few days. It is first observed by the appearance of fluidfilled blisters on the skin and skin slippage where large sheets of skin slough off the body. Meanwhile, the body has acclimated to ambient temperature (algor mortis), blood has settled in the body causing discoloration of the skin (livor mortis) and cellular cytoplasm has gelled due to increased acidity (rigor mortis). After enough cells have ruptured, nutrient-rich fluids become available and the process of putrefaction can begin.

Putrefaction is the destruction of the soft tissues of the body by the action of micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and protozoa) and results in the catabolism of tissue into gases, liquids and simple molecules. Usually, the first visible sign of putrefaction is a greenish discoloration of the skin due to the formation of sulfhaemoglobin in settled blood. The process progresses into distension of tissues due to the formation of various gases (hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen), especially in the bowels, but I have seen this in many parts of the body, including the face, lips and groin. This is associated with anaerobic fermentation, primarily in the gut, releasing by-products rich in volatile fatty acids, mainly butyric and propionic acids. Gas and fluid accumulation in the intestines usually purge from the rectum, but can be severe enough to rip apart the skin causing additional post-mortem injuries. Shortly after the purging of gases due to putrefaction, active decay begins. Muscle, composed of protein, which in turn is composed of amino acids, readily yields to the formation of additional volatile fatty acids through bacterial action. Further protein and fat decomposition yields phenolic compounds and glycerols. Compounds, including indole, 3-methylindole (skatole), putrescine, cadaverine and various fatty acids have been detected and are significant decomposition products. At this point in the decay cycle electrolytes are rapidly leaching out of the body, both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria are present in large numbers, insect activity is very prominent and carnivores can contribute significantly to the decline of the corpse.

Saponification (the formation of soap from fat under high pH conditions) or adipocere formation typically occurs after the onset of putrefaction in warm, moist, environments and is seen as deposits of a yellowishwhite, greasy, wax-like substance. Adipocere develops as the result of fat hydrolysis with the release of fatty acids. Adipocere consistency varies with the type of material to which it is bound and gives some indication as to the rate of decomposition. Rapid decomposition is indicated by a hard and crumbly composition if bound with sodium (primarily from interstitial fluids), but a soft, paste-like complex is formed when bound with potassium (from the breakdown of cell membranes), potentially indicating slower decay rates. Adipocere formation is accelerated by the post-mortem invasion of tissues by bacteria, especially putrefactive species such as Clostridium and it takes from several weeks to months to form.

Mummification is typically the end result of tissue, usually skin, with no nutritional value, which has survived the active decay process and is formed by the dehydration or desiccation of the tissue. Remaining skin is converted into a leathery or parchment-like sheet which clings to bone. Mummification most commonly develops in conditions of dry heat or in areas that have very low humidity, such as in arctic regions or deserts. Bone goes through yet another complex process called diagenesis. Diagenesis is a natural process that serves to alter the proportions of organic (collagen) and inorganic components (hydroxyapatite, calcium, magnesium) of bone exposed to environmental conditions, especially moisture. This is accomplished by the exchange of natural bone constituents, deposition in voids or defects, adsorption onto the bone surface and leaching from the bone.

Historically, the progression of human decomposition has been described as taking place in four stages: fresh (autolysis), bloat (putrefaction), decay (putrefaction and carnivores) and dry (diagenesis). Current thinking is that it should be segregated into pre- and post-skeletonization, since stages are not always observed and in fact may be totally absent, depending on the taphonomy of the corpse. All these processes together (autolysis, putrefaction and diagenesis) eventually result in complex structures composed of proteins, carbohydrates, sugars, collagen and lipids returning to their simplest building blocks – essentially dust to dust.

How long does decomposition take? Decomposition is a complicated process, but is primarily dependant on temperature and to a lesser extent on moisture. In our studies we have worked out a simple formula, which describes the soft tissue decomposition process for persons lying on the ground. The formula is y=1285/x (where y is the number of days it takes to become skeletonized or mummified and x is the average temperature in Centigrade during the decomposition process). So, if the average temperature is 10 °C, then 1285/10 = 128.5 days for someone to become skeletonized. Of course, this is a rough estimate since many factors affect this rate and it is typically used at a crime scene when investigators need some time frame from which to begin their investigation. Buried individuals and ones submerged in water have different rates of decomposition. Injuries affect the rate as well since damage to the skin increases blood loss, insect and bacterial action. In severe environments, such as in the arctic or in deserts, rapid desiccation occurs and this makes any accurate determination extremely difficult. Carnivore activity is yet another factor which can radically affect decomposition. Exclusion of insects and carnivores will slow down the process, whereas exposure to many (or larger) carnivores will increase the rate. Remember that decomposition does not end after the soft tissue has disappeared. The skeleton also has a decompositional rate that is based on the loss of organic (collagen) and inorganic components. Some of the inorganic compounds we use to determine the length of time since death include calcium, potassium and magnesium. As with soft tissue, these leach out of bone at a rate determined primarily by temperature and exposure to moisture. As a general rule, bones, within the first year, will begin to bleach and one may see growth of algae or moss on them. Within the first decade one will expect to see exfoliation and the formation of large cracks in the bone. Roots from nearby vegetation may grow into the bone mass, significant rodent gnawing will be present and the appearance of annual leaf falls is evident.

The role of microbes When I began studying human decomposition over a decade ago in an attempt to determine a more accurate method for estimating the post-mortem interval, I began by investigating bacteria. The concept was that since insects can be used for this task, given that they arrive in characteristic, identifiable waves, why shouldn’t bacteria behave in a similar fashion? It only took 3 months to quickly abandon this concept. Even in the very early stages of decomposition, I was inundated by the sheer numbers of organisms isolated – Staphylococcus, Candida, Malasseria, Bacillus and Streptococcus spp. – just to mention a few. As decomposition progressed, putrefactive bacteria were thrown into the mix followed rapidly by anaerobes.

These included micrococci, coliforms, diptheroids and Clostridium spp. There was a preponderance of certain organisms such as Serratia spp., Klebsiella spp., Proteus spp., Salmonella sp. and even gliding bacteria like Cytophaga – not to mention pseudomonads and flavobacteria. As these mixed with environmental micro-organisms such as Agrobacterium, amoebae and many colourful varieties of fungi and, of course, those brought to the corpse by flies and other insects, I relented. I came to the conclusion, somewhat facetiously, that with the exception of micro-organisms living in deep-sea vents, every micro-organism known is involved in some aspect of the human decompositional cycle from Acetobacter to Zooglea. While many of the organisms isolated come from the bowel and respiratory tract, literally hundreds of species are involved in the decompositional process and decomposition would not progress without them.

One particular forensic case comes to mind that illustrates this point. Workmen clearing limbs from a roadside guardrail (in the summer) discovered a fully clothed woman dead for an undetermined time. No indication of decomposition and no insect activity led investigators to initially believe this was a very recent homicide. In actuality the woman had been dead for nearly 4 months. She had been sprayed with insecticide (and other chemicals) by the perpetrator to mask the odour of decomposition so she wouldn’t be found. Unwittingly, the murderer had essentially sterilized the body and prevented flies from laying eggs. Autopsy showed some internal decomposition, but it was significantly reduced. Apparently, the chemicals seeped into her lungs and then spread throughout her body. Taphonomic circumstances also play a role in the response of micro-organisms. Several years ago, grave robbers, searching for artefacts, unearthed the coffin of an American Civil War Colonel (Col. Shy). The caretaker of the cemetery called in the police who found a fresh corpse in the grave. After significant investigation, it was ascertained that the fresh corpse was indeed Col. Shy, who ‘still had red meat on his bones’. At that time prominent solders were buried in solid lead coffins – the lead had ‘sterilized’ the body by poisoning the microflora and decomposition had not progressed past initial autolysis.

Why study human decomposition? It is critical that the decomposition process be understood because it impacts on forensic investigations in a variety of ways. At every crime scene many questions are asked, but to solve the crime the five ‘W’s (who, what, when, where and why) must be answered. Studies into human decomposition help answer four questions: who is the victim, how did the victim die, where and when did the victim die? In addition to being extremely useful for ‘Time Since Death’ determinations, the identification of decompositional products may also be relevant to victim identification. The presence of melanin, for example, may help establish the race of the victim, especially when key skeletal elements are absent. The quantity of various decompositional products, such as fatty acids, may help determine the weight of an individual, which can also be useful in determining the victim’s identity. This would be crucial, especially when articles of clothing are unavailable at the crime scene. Knowledge of any trace amounts of chemicals, drugs, medications or toxins present in decomposed tissue may also be of help to investigators in attempting to determine cause of death. Additionally, the study of decompositional products may even be useful in locating human remains or clandestine grave sites by improving the training procedures for cadaver recovery dogs, through the determination of the alerting scent emanating from a corpse, or in the development of field instrumentation for assisting in cadaver recovery searches.

The future Current techniques to determine the post mortem interval using decompositional products (volatile fatty acids) can range from ±2 days for soft tissue decay and ±3 weeks using inorganics for skeletonized material, up to approximately 5 years. Currently we are looking at specific organ biomarkers, which we hope will narrow the estimated range down to less than 12 hours for the first several weeks of decomposition. New, sophisticated hand-held devices are being planned which can be used by police at a crime scene to give them immediate answers as to how long the victim has been dead and to help locate clandestine graves. Novel fingerprint and DNA recovery techniques will aid in both victim and perpetrator identification – all of which are made possible by an intimate knowledge of the decompositional process.

Dr Arpad A. Vass is currently a Senior Staff Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee in Forensic Anthropology. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1 Bethel Valley Road, X-10, Bldg 4500S, Rm E148, MS 6101, Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6101, USA. Tel. +1 865 574 0686; Fax +1 865 574 0587 email

So now we know what exactly happens to us when we die. Any questions?

12 Responses to “What happens after you die?”

  1. Hank said

    I may be too literal but I wasn’t able to find any context in the article that was even remotely relevant to Jesus Christ, resurrection, or even natural theology for that matter. Why would an understanding of the physical processes of decomposition suppose to change one’s religious beliefs? The article itself was quite interesting though.

  2. pwl said

    The facts of the human body decomposition show what actually happens to the cells and systems of our bodies – which are everything that make us us – upon our death. The above article is from a scientific journal and deals with the harsh realities of the biology of human death.

    After the death of critical organs such as the human brain, heart, lungs, etc… the human body decays and rots.

    Jesus was a human being assuming he existed at all. As a result of being human Jesus would have started to rot within four minutes of his death on the cross. Note that he would have had massive injuries including serious gashes in his sides from spears and major wounds where his head and hands were penetrated by spikes. After the death of jesus he would begin rotting.

    After three days of rotting, as the article discusses, the human body is way past any point of coming back to life. It’s only in your fantasy that the resurrection is possible. In the objective reality of Nature where we actually exist it is simply not possible for a human body to come back to life after the critical brain death has occurred. Not even modern hospitals can save a person from that for it’s too late, the cells have started their decay process. Their life is gone. They are just mush now decomposing and rotting. They are damaged beyond the state of no repair.

    Have you ever taken an object apart? Sure you have. Imagine taking a car apart. At some point the car will cease to be a car and will only be parts of a former car. Now destroy these parts and the car can never be put back together. Where did the car go? No where. No it didn’t go to car heaven. It simply ceased to be. Just like a car or other object when we die our cells pass a point of no return and at some point we simply are no more just like the car taken apart is no more. We cease to be.

    The mystery of what happens to us when we die is solved. It’s no more difficult to grasp than getting that when something is taken apart it passes a point of no return and ceases to be, especially when the parts are destroyed. Cellular decay destroys us. We are like Humpty Dumpty, we can’t be put back together again.

    From the harsh facts of biological science we can now know that nothing happens after we die other than the decay of our bodies and our utter obliteration. We know from biology that we are not separable from our cells, and especially from certain cells that make up our critical cellular components. Kill those cells and we are dead, dead, dead.

    There is nothing in science that shows any magical energy floating away. In fact all of science shows the opposite of magical spirits. We are ugly meat bags mostly filled with water.

    Science shows us that the myth of the resurrection of Jesus is just that, a myth from a rather bad story book filled with a horrific god that floods an entire planet killing almost all it life through to it’s slaughter of the first born of an entire country just because the dictator wouldn’t obey him. Yes, it’s just a horror story book best left for historians to quibble over. Time in life is too short to take it seriously. Certainly science shows that it’s stories of miracles and magic can’t be true. No heaven. No hell. No afterlife. They are all just stories and if you believe in them you’ve been conned and are delusional all based upon faith based beliefs in an immoral mass murdering genocidal angry alleged god. It’s good that we can use knowledge to slice through the Bronze Dark Ages mythologies like they are easy butter sliced with a dull butter table knife.

    We exist for a brief moment in time and then we cease to be. Live your life as if every moment matters, for it does. In the history of the universe you are unique and even more importantly you are a unique perspective, a sentient living human being experiencing life. Experience it to the fullest grounded in the harsh beauty of the objective reality of Nature without supernatural fantasies that can’t happen due to the laws of Nature. It’s – in my view – best to live in harmony with Nature not fight it with our crazy mythologies of gods and supermen named jesus who are of dubious character with their immoral actions. Live life fully engaged and grounded connected with Nature. Enjoy your life.

  3. pwl said

    Well Hank, too bad for you.

    “Why would an understanding of the physical processes of decomposition suppose to change one’s religious beliefs?” – Hank4162

    Simple. That’s all that happens. Nothing else happens. You’re obliterated. Gone. No more. You won’t even know that you’re gone because you won’t exist anymore to know anything. Simple.

    Take a car apart. Smash the pieces. At some point it ceases to be a car. Where did it go? All the parts are right there in front of you but at some point it’s no longer a car. Same with humans. That point is where the above article begins. It begins when you are no more. Finito.

  4. sebastian said

    This doesn’t predict a single thing about what happens with consciousness.

    Actually the word is not even mentioned in the article.

    It’s ok about what happens with the body.

    BTW I’m not religious but at the same time I don’t accept over-simplistic models of reality.

    I mean…


    until we couldn’t predict things anymore with it (Plank and friends) and we needed Schrödinger

  5. geo said

    (Of course F=MA is still used to predict things – except at sub-atomic level.) Science is far more knowledgeable than most people realise. And we now know more than enough to say that consciousness, including moral desion-making, all occurs in the brain. You can see them working with EEG scans. And you can literally see these faculties die during a stroke or Alzeimers progression. No soul needed, no magic ghost.

  6. Gary Kulsrud said

    People don’t understand the first thing about anything let alone what death entrails (:

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