When you die, there are several things that can happen. Your body can be left to decompose in one way or another (different countries have different traditions), you can be cremated, or you can be cryopreserved. Individuals who don’t choose cryopreservation (or cremation) will progress through the traditional timeline of decomposition. If you’ve watched any crime-related TV shows or movies, you already know that this can be a pretty gruesome process. The body gradually breaks down into simpler organic matter through a series of cascading biological and chemical processes.
Although decomposition begins immediately, it can continue on for years! The only things that really stop the process are chemicals and cold. Unsurprisingly, both of these are involved in cryopreservation. So, if you really want to take advantage of cold (sub-zero) temperatures, cryonics is the way to go. Let’s explore what happens to your body after death in both situations.
Body decomposition progresses through distinct stages. While the exact number of these phases varies based on who you ask, we decided to simplify them into four different windows. Remember, your body will only advance through the stages of decomposition if you don’t make plans for your death (hint, hint: cryopreservation).
The initial stage of body decomposition begins right at clinical death. This is defined as the moment your heart stops beating (cardiac arrest) and vital functions cease. However, clinical death is reversible if done within a four to six minute window. This can be achieved through things like CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator. If measures aren’t taken to reverse clinical death, legal death is pronounced.
This is the point in time where one of two things can happen. Situation one: your body continues with the process of autolysis. Situation two: your cryonics provider is notified to begin the process of cryoprotection (more on that later).
Autolysis is also referred to as self-digestion. It begins when blood stops circulating and respiration ceases. Since your body can no longer remove waste, carbon dioxide begins to fill the internal cavity, causing it to turn acidic. High acidity levels within the body will eventually rupture cellular membranes, thus releasing specific enzymes that trigger cellular autophagy. Essentially, this means that your cells begin to eat themselves. It’s also during this phase that rigor mortis sets in and stiffens the muscles.
The next stage of body decomposition is bloating, which begins about anywhere from two to five days after death (depending on environmental factors). During this stage, gases begin to accumulate within the body, causing it to bloat. They may include methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and more. The production of gases comes from both cellular autophagy and the lack of bacterial balance within the microbiome. Since there’s no system to keep bacteria in check, they begin to reproduce rapidly and feed on the body.
As the gases continue to accumulate, they build up and increase the internal pressure of the body cavity. Bodies can almost double in size due to the amount of bloating! This can also lead to fluid leakage, skin discoloration, and an increase of insects. Internal microorganisms, gases, and the unchecked bacteria also emit putrefaction odors.
The next stage is considered the decay phase. This is when organs, muscles, and skin start to liquify. Without being too graphic, this is the part of body decomposition when soft tissues decompose, liquids begin to ooze from the body, and you start to lose your skin. Your body mass depletes during this stage. There are both active periods of decay (when most of the mass is lost) and advanced decay (when only cartilage, bones, ligaments, and some byproducts are left over). In the midst of this description, here’s a fun fact: It’s actually not true that our hair and nails continue growing after death. They only appear to get larger because the body is shrinking!
The final stage of body decomposition is skeletonization. This is when everything has decomposed and dried up, leaving only the bones and maybe a little bit of hair. The location of a body during decomposition can influence how long it takes to reach this process, but it may occur anywhere from a few months to a few years. Although bones do decay as well, it can take up to 80 years or more!
The process of human decomposition is pretty gross, but that’s not your only option. Let’s revisit the second situation we mentioned above: your cryonics provider is notified to begin the process of cryoprotection. Basically, if you sign up for cryopreservation, your body won’t go through the stages of body decomposition above. You may even get to experience life in the future!
Cryopreservation puts the body’s cellular processes on pause and stops cellular and tissue decay. Using cryoprotective agents (CPAs) and a process of vitrification, your body is gradually cooled to sub-zero temperatures and transferred for long-term storage in a cryogenic storage dewar. This keeps your cells “frozen” in time. Although no freezing actually takes place, your cells don’t age, decay, or decompose like they would if you weren’t cryopreserved. The idea behind cryopreservation is to keep patients’ bodies stored indefinitely, until technological advances can support future revival. While this isn’t a guarantee, there’s no fundamental biological reason it might not be possible in the future. That means there’s a chance, which is definitely worth taking! You can also choose cremation to avoid decomposition, but this option gives you a 0% chance of future revival.
What happens to your body after death is a pretty fascinating process, but the details aren’t exactly dinner table conversation. Discussing cryopreservation, on the other hand, can spark some interesting stories, ignite hope for the future, and even lead to some pretty great lifestyle changes. If you’re interested in learning more about all things cryopreservation, schedule a call with us or sign up for our newsletter below. If the idea of decomposition isn’t something you could imagine postmortem, we don’t blame you. Sign up for cryopreservation instead.