What Is Death? Turns Out No One Really Knows

The difference between alive and dead isn't exactly black and white. In fact, no one can really agree on a single definition or moment of death. What is death, and when does it happen? Sometimes even the simplest questions are the most difficult to answer.

How "Dead" Can You Get?

You've heard those medieval horror stories, whether true or fabricated: A body is prepared for burial, only for the person to jolt back to life while lying in a casket at their own wake. (Fun fact: Wakes did in fact begin as a sort of pause before the burial just to really make sure the body was lifeless.) Worse yet are the stories of people who were buried alive. How could this happen? Well, turns out deciding when someone is dead is kind of confusing.

According to the BBC, "biologically speaking, there has never been a single moment of death; each passing is really a series of mini-deaths, with different tissues dropping off at different rates." As Robert Veatch from the Kennedy Institute of Ethics told them: "Choosing a definition of death is essentially a religious or philosophical question."

You Can Be Dead In A Number Of Ways

Someone is surely dead when they stop breathing, right? Or maybe when their heart stops beating? Or is it when there's no brain activity? None of these are wrong, it just depends on what "dead" means to you.

"A person is declared dead when their heart stops beating, they are no longer breathing and they have no circulation for several minutes and they are not on any sort of life support," Dr. James Bernat, a professor of neurology and medicine at Dartmouth told TIME. This is a more traditional description of death, but there is usually not a moment when it all shuts down at once. As stated before, this requires a series of "mini-deaths."

Surely you've heard the term brain-dead—that's another kind of dead. As TIME reports, brain-dead means "that all brain functions and abilities have ceased irreversibly, even though the person may be breathing on a respirator or ventilator. [...] These patients are known as beating-heart cadavers, and although their brains are damaged beyond repair, they have fully functioning organs and a pulse." A beating-heart cadaver is not to be confused with someone in a persistent vegetative state (the entire brain must be dead to be considered the former), or coma patients. So are some deads deader than other deads? Can one type of dead come before the other? If this article and concept left you with more questions than answers, you're not alone.

When Are You Dead?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Ancient Greeks would sometimes cut off a dead body's finger to ensure that the person was indeed dead. 00:06

  2. Medically speaking, total brain death counts as death, even if your heart is still working. 00:56

  3. To ensure safer organ transplants, doctors will harvest organs from still "living" brain-dead bodies. 01:34

Written by Joanie Faletto January 19, 2017

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