Hello and thanks for popping in today, for another assortment of random factoids. In keeping with the bone theme of the last post, things again seem to be taking a morbid turn. I’ve always been interested in taphonomy. This is the study of what happens to the body after death. More to the point it is the science of what happens to you as soon as you cease living. From a very technical standpoint, this is from the second your heart stops beating and it really is a matter of ashes to ashes. Physics and nature go into autopilot and work to recycle all the goodness that is in you. Eventually time and decay wring you dry. It’s a bit clinical, but it’s also an extremely beautiful and interesting process.
There’s much more to it than meets the eye. As a tiny green Jedi master once said, you must “unlearn what you have learned.” Forget TV. Forget it! Death isn’t as simple as pointing a gun and just killing someone:
Life isn’t so cut and dry. And that’s what this series of posts is about! In response to some of the contributions I’ve recieved this week, it seems fitting to address some random morsels of information about both Death the supernatural entity and death the physical process.
Death has had an obvious hold over us since before we were us. It is the single motivating factor that drives life on. Mythology from around the world has tried to understand it. Ancient peoples anthropomorphised death, feeling that if death was someone like us, it could be reasoned with or controlled.
Fact 1: In ancient Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death. He was captured by a human criminal (King?); Sisyphus, who tricked Thanatos into shackling himself! During this period of bondage, death obviously came to no one!
Fact 2: Thanatos obviously wasn’t that powerful, being defeated in a wrestling match by the hero Heracles, during his quest to rescue the princess Alcestis from Hades (the Underworld).
Fact 3: In the sacred Indian language of Sanskrit, death is a journey, or mahaprasthasana; when the soul leaves the physical body and returns to the Aatman, or Universal Soul.
Fact 4: Full skeletonisation of a body can occur in as little as month. In some cases it’s been observed to take place in one or two weeks!
Fact 5: There are many kinds of death, but on a cellular level there are two main ways cells die: necrosis; premature death of cells resulting from destruction which results in the cellular contents leaking out (autolysis) and apoptosis. This is a targeted sequence of genetic signals and processes whereby the cell essentially switches itself off.
Fact 6: Senescence, or ageing as we would understand it, only happens in multicellular organisms like us. It is still not fully understood why we age the way we do.
Fact 7: Cells in a dead body can regain mitotic activity, even after long periods of inactivity. This ties into…
Fact 8: Gene transcription has been observed in cadavers for some time after “death” has occured. It appears that many types of cells in a corpse actively fight organismal death. It’s like a city dying, but the individual inhabitants are still alive and kicking! (at least for a time).
That’s all for this post. There was so much from contributors that putting it all in would have turned this post into something completely unwieldy and just plain long. All contributions have been referenced and you will find links to plenty of great reading and resources below if you find (like me!) that this whole death thing is actually really interesting.
All contributors to this post found their way here via Twitter.
Facts 1 and 2 were provided by Serena:
Fact 3 was provided by Devayani:
Fact 4 and other interesting facts on skeletonisation were provided by Laure Spake:
Facts 5, 6 and 7 came from a fascinating discussion with Cam Hough, a contributor to a previous post. Thanks again Cam!
Finally, John van der Gugten brings up the rear. Again, an extremely interesting discussion was had, and there was just too much too squeeze into a post like this. Many of the links below were provided by John, and he knows his stuff. His academic page is linked to in his twitter profile, for an overview of his publications and work. Check him out!
Absolutely feel free to leave comments or questions below. I will endeavour to hook people up with any information they may require.
References and further Reading (highly recommended):