Death happens to us all. We know that every one of us will reach that point in our lives where our bodies shut down, and we will die.
And yet death is a mystery to the majority of people.
But if you are one of the curious and brave, keep reading. You will learn about the intricacies of the body as it goes through the final stages of life and onto the next.
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, you may want to know, “What happens when you die?”
10 Things That Happen When You Die
1. Your body stops working.
Death can start to happen in many ways. Sometimes it is a quick and painless process, other times it may take a different path.
- Your loved one may lose energy. They may lose interest in eating and drinking.
- The organs will begin to shut down.
- Breathing will become difficult. Your person may breathe faster or slower. The build-up of mucus may cause a rattling sound. This is called a “death rattle.”
- The heart rate will become irregular and blood pressure will gradually begin to fall.
- The skin tone can change, appearing gray or dusky due to lack of oxygen.
- Once the brain begins to shut down, the body may make involuntary movements.
- When death has occurred, the bladder and bowels may evacuate. The person’s eyes don’t always close, the mouth will usually fall open, and all muscles will become flaccid.
These physical details are difficult to think about, but it is helpful to be prepared and know what to expect.
2. Medical professionals check for heart activity (pulse), lung activity (breath), nervous activity (reflexes, pupil dilation), and pronounce death.
The doctor or hospice nurse will check for signs of life using a stethoscope to hear a heartbeat and lung activity. They will use a pen light to check for pupil dilation.
Once these signs indicate a physical loss of life, the medical professional will pronounce death and note the time.
3. According to the Bible (Ecclesiastes 12:7), your spirit returns to God.
Christians believe in the afterlife on the basis of the Bible’s teachings. If you are a born-again believer who has placed faith in Jesus Christ, you understand that the spirit will be returned to God.
At some point, the resurrected body and spirit will be reunited to reside in Heaven forever. Take comfort knowing that you will see your loved one again and experience a joyful reunion with everyone that has passed on before you.
Related: 50 Timeless Funeral Scriptures
4. Your family and loved ones are notified and begin to grieve.
If you weren’t present for the death of your loved one, the doctor, hospice nurse, coroner, police, or someone else will notify you of the death.
Once you are notified, the information may not sink in right away. You might begin operating on auto-pilot. This is a normal and healthy part of the grieving process.
The first thing that should happen is you need to notify your funeral home of choice. Your funeral director can and will help guide you through this most difficult time.
5. Your body begins to decompose.
Within minutes of death, your body will start to decompose. This is called autolysis or self-digestion. It is the destruction of cells and tissue caused by their own enzymes. The first organ to start this process is usually the brain.
- Pallor mortis will begin within 15 to 25 minutes. This is when the body begins to pale from lack of blood flow.
- Livor mortis will occur within an hour or two. Also referred to as hypostasis, this is the pooling of blood due to gravity and collapsed blood vessels.
- Algor mortis is the cooling of the body. This has been happening since the moment of death, but will be noticeable after the first few hours. The body cools around 2 degrees in the initial hour after death, then about 1 degree per hour until reaching ambient temperature.
- Rigor mortis sets in approximately 3 to 8 hours after death. Rigor mortis is the tightening of the body. It will stiffen because of chemical changes to the muscles following death. This stage lasts up to 36 hours, and then the muscle tissue will become flaccid or soft again.
- Depending on how quickly the body is refrigerated or embalmed, putrefaction will set in.
Learn more: What Happens to a Body After Death?
6. The state records the death and prepares a death certificate.
Your funeral director will gather all personal information for the death certificate. Once that is accomplished, the death certificate is passed on to the doctor, who will fill out their portion.
Upon completion of all information, the state will make a record of the death and issue a certified death certificate.
7. Funeral arrangements are made and a funeral or memorial service is held.
Your loved one may have had pre-arrangement plans in place. If they did, this will save time and money. The pre-arrangements would list what he or she wanted to take place as far as cremation or traditional burial.
If you don’t have any plans to go from, there are lots of decisions to be made (here’s a funeral planning checklist). You can count on an hour or two just to talk about the preliminary plans with your funeral director.
Related: Funeral Planning Guide
8. Your body is buried or cremated.
Depending upon their final wishes, the body will either be buried or cremated.
People need to make their wishes known to their families, as that will save them a whole lot of stress over many of these decisions. If you’re making your own plans, write it down and tell your loved ones. If you’re not making your own plans… well, why aren’t you?
9. Your will is read and your property is distributed.
The beneficiaries listed in the will are usually allowed to have a copy of it. The executor of the will is responsible to file it with the court – the beneficiaries cannot receive their portion of the will until it is probated. The court will examine the will to make sure it was signed and witnessed appropriately.
Probating your loved one’s will is a process and may take anywhere from eight to twelve months, depending on the size of the estate.
10. Your loved ones remember and celebrate your legacy.
You may choose one or more ways to celebrate the life of a loved one. Throw a reception, plant a tree, dedicate a bench in a park. You might like to take a quiet moment and bow your head in prayer. Thank God for the time you spent with your loved one.
When someone has been loved, their life has been well spent.
Smart Planning Starts Now
Death is a hard topic. It’s not easy to think long and clearly about subjects like dying, funerals, wills, and what to do with your body. It’s even more difficult to talk about these things with your closest loved one.
Still, it’s very wise to do so. Live with the end in mind. It may surprise you to find that as you tackle these tough questions and begin to answer them, your life takes on more meaning, and the chance to leave behind a lasting legacy feels more real.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- Do you want your organs donated? Which ones? Should they go to any particular medical school?
- Do you want to be buried? Where? Would you prefer cremation? What about your ashes – do you want them kept in a cremation urn? Or should they be scattered? Where?
- What kind of casket would you prefer – a cheap pine box? Or the best casket money can buy?
- Do you want to be embalmed? Do you want an open-casket viewing of your body?
- What sort of funeral do you want? Who should officiate? Is there a specific funeral home you wish to handle the arrangements?
- Do you want a “celebration of life”? Where should services be held – in church, at home, graveside? Are there specific instructions such as favorite poems or Scriptures to be read, special music to be played, etc?
- What sort of grave marker do you want, if any? What should the inscription say?
- Who should be notified of your death? Who should be invited to the funeral/memorial service?
- What information should be included in your obituary?
Here’s our Funeral Planning Checklist, which will help you keep tabs on all this information in an easy, simple way.
After taking your time reading and checking out our funeral planning resources, you can consider yourself an expert on the subject of “What happens when you die.”
And hopefully, you will realize that death is not the scary mystery it has been made out to be. Yes, it’s frightening. And yes, it is still rather mysterious. But research, planning, and clear-minded thinking about your own life and legacy will provide you with a measure of comfort.
Karen Roldan has been in the funeral industry since 2006, and a licensed funeral director and embalmer since 2008. She is currently licensed in the states of Indiana and Pennsylvania.
She attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, IL, and graduated with an associate degree in Mortuary Science.
Karen enjoys wring about the funeral industry because her passion is helping families in their deepest time of need. She feels being a funeral director is a calling and she is proud to fulfill this role.
Karen is a wife and the mother of four sons. She, her husband and their youngest son call Pennsylvania home.