8 Misconceptions About Death

Not all funerals will break the bank.
Not all funerals will break the bank. / Jupiterimages/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you may be under the impression that corpses can pass wind. And while that seems like something your 14-year-old nephew might share just for the shock value, it’s actually true. The bacteria in the intestinal tract responsible for flatulence don’t die off just because the body is no longer in operation. And because our sphincters relax post-mortem, even just repositioning a body can force out trapped gas.

But there are plenty of actual misconceptions about death. We'll exhume a few of them below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on Youtube.

1. Misconception: Your fingernails keep growing after death.

It’s one of those factoids that gets passed around: Every so often your fingernails and even your hair continue to grow after your demise.

Sorry, but you will not be needing a manicure during your dirt nap. While some argue that it’s technically possible for nails and hair to grow a tiny bit after death because skin cells don’t need as much oxygen as other organs, you’re not going to sprout claws or a luxurious mane. Nails need glucose to grow, and without it, you’re in no need of clippers.

This myth is likely rooted in the fact that, after death, the skin begins to tighten and shrink due to dehydration. That change can cause nails to appear to grow. Facial stubble can also seem to stick out more, but it’s because the skin is drying out, not because follicles are sprouting.

2. Misconception: Dying in your sleep is always peaceful.

Hopefully, when it’s your time to go, it won’t be due to a bear mauling or a murder hornet attack. Some people think the most peaceful way is to expire is in your sleep. But that may be a euphemism for less-somnolent circumstances, especially if the cause of death was something the family of the deceased wishes to keep private.

A heart arrhythmia or brain aneurysm may prompt a fairly painless death while dozing, but there are other, more grisly causes.

It’s possible a person suffering from a heart attack or other catastrophic body failure will wake up before dying, giving them a few terrifying moments of clarity and physical discomfort before heading to parts unknown. Evidence of these unpeaceful moments might be sheets folded up around the deceased or otherwise disturbed, indicating distress.

That’s not to say a tranquil passing is always an illusion, but it’s not guaranteed.

3. Misconception: Dead bodies are a health hazard.

If you ever find yourself standing around an unidentified corpse, you might stop to consider whether being close to a dead body could be harmful. What if they carry diseases? Fleas? Fungus?

No need to worry. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that dead bodies are a “negligible health risk.” That doesn’t mean zero—it’s theoretically possible for someone like an aid worker who is directly handling the body to contract hepatitis or tuberculosis, but only for a few days after the body expires, at most. Any longer and you’re not likely to contract anything.

The World Health Organization concurs, saying that bodies “only pose a substantial risk to health in a few special cases, such as deaths from cholera or hemorrhagic fevers.”

And the safety experts at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, also have an opinion [PDF]: “There is no direct risk of contagion or infectious disease from being near human remains for those who are not directly involved in recovery or other efforts that require handling the remains … Viruses associated with human remains (e.g., hepatitis B and C, HIV, various bacteria, etc.) do not pose a risk to someone walking nearby, nor do they cause significant environmental contamination.”

So, walking by a dead body—no issue. Handling a dead body? No issue if you do it carefully. According to OSHA, the biggest concern when handling a body may actually be injuring your back: “Having more than one person involved in lifting the human remains will help to reduce the potential for injury. Following appropriate lifting techniques will also help to protect people, as will the use of mechanical lifts or other devices when available.”

4. Misconception: Cremation turns you into ash.

A black funerary urn and white flower with red ribbons
There's more to cremation than you think. / giuseppepapa/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Cremation is an appealing option for those who are afraid of feeling claustrophobic for all of eternity. You probably assume that the process involves placing the body into a furnace and heating it up until it’s a pile of powdery soot. But that’s not the whole story.

When your body is delivered to a crematory, it’s placed in an oven and heated to around 1100°F. The resulting product is not exactly a fine ash ready to be wistfully scattered into the ocean. Cremation leaves residual bone fragments that need to be mechanically pulverized. Before that step, the remains look less like powder and more like gravel. 

And because we know you’re wondering—no, it’s not recommended that anyone with a medical device or implants be cremated without the foreign objects being removed prior to the cremation. Something like breast implants might even cause environmental harm when burned.

5. Misconception: All funerals are expensive.

Saying goodbye to the dearly departed can sometimes mean saying goodbye to your vacation fund. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a farewell ceremony is over $7000. But celebrating a life doesn’t have to mean taking out a small loan.

Cremating a body is significantly less expensive than embalming and burying one, and it saves you big on caskets, which average around $2400 and can go for up to $10,000.

And while you can opt for a big and potentially expensive bash at a funeral home, some states allow you to transport the body and obtain a death certificate yourself. Instead of using the funeral home’s facilities, you can opt for visitation or a viewing at a private residence or possibly even a place of worship. Some people even decide to make a loved one’s departure a festive event by holding a barbecue. Bottom line? You can honor the recently-passed without plunging into debt. You just need some creative thinking—and possibly a midsized sedan.

6. Misconception: Hospice care is only for the dying.

When we think of hospice care, we generally associate it with end-of-life arrangements and making someone comfortable before they pass. Some people use the term palliative care to lessen the stress associated with the term.

But hospice isn’t always synonymous with the end of life. Patients are candidates for hospice when their illness is incurable but not necessarily imminently fatal. And while some hospice programs may require a diagnosis expecting the patient to not live beyond six months, that doesn’t always mean they won’t. In fact, thanks to specialized care, hospice patients may wind up living longer than if they were receiving other kinds of care. It’s actually even possible to flunk out of hospice because a physician no longer believes a person’s chance of dying is sufficiently high enough to keep them there.

Even if you imagine the worst about hospice, consider this. This specialized care—which can be administered at home, not just at treatment centers—also places a focus on supporting loved ones and offering tools to help them cope with end-of-life issues. It’s as much for the living as the possibly-soon-to-be departed. Of course, decisions about hospice or any other kind of medical care should be made by you in concert with medical professionals—not someone on the internet.

7. Misconception: 35-year-olds were senior citizens in the past.

There’s no question that advances in medicine have saved people from diseases and other ailments that would have wrecked them centuries ago. But we might get a little cocky, at times, about how smart we modern humans are. Sometimes we chuckle about those poor people in the Middle Ages whose “average life span” topped out in the thirties.

But here’s the secret behind those short life expectancies of the olden days: They were based on averages and skewed by tragedy. According to the BBC, our concept of “average life expectancies” in the past is colored by high childhood mortality rates. Imagine you had two siblings: one died as a 1-year-old and one at the age of 70. You’d get an average sibling life expectancy of 35. When you hit your 34th birthday, though, you probably wouldn’t feel like you were on death’s door.

If you apply the same averaging method to a larger population and get the same mean age of death, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in that population was dropping dead at 35. A 1994 study of ancient Greek and Roman men found that people mentioned in the Oxford Classical Dictionary who were born before 100 BCE lived to a median age of 72 years. That’s not far off from the 75 years of modern American males. [PDF].

Another study of people—specifically, their teeth—born between 475 and 625 CE found that it wasn’t unusual to live into one’s seventies. The human body has long been capable of aging normally. The problem was all the battles and terrible medical care, not premature “old age.”

There are some caveats, however. In the past, poorer people tended to have legitimately shorter life spans due to the hard labor they performed. So did women, who faced untreatable pregnancy complications that men didn’t have to deal with. But in terms of the aging process itself, people in the past held up relatively well.

8. Misconception: You lose exactly 21 grams of weight when you die.

Of all the misunderstandings surrounding death, there’s one that stands out as the most mysterious: that a human body will lose a precise amount of weight at the exact moment of expiration—a total of 21 grams. Some people believe it’s the weight of the soul leaving its physical host to go on to live an ethereal existence elsewhere.

The idea came from a doctor named Duncan MacDougall. In the early 20th century he convinced six terminally ill patients, four of whom were suffering from tuberculosis, to rest—and eventually expire—on beds that were arranged on scales. He measured weight loss in the time leading up to death and then looked for a notable increase in weight loss at the moment of death.

But of the six patients, only the first one lost 21 grams (actually, three-fourths of an ounce, because MacDougall didn’t use the metric system). Without getting totally bogged down in the details, there’s evidence that it was more like 24 grams.

So what about the other five subjects? According to MacDougall’s report, one wasn’t useful because “the scales were not finely adjusted and there was a good deal of interference by people opposed to our work.” Another died before the beam could be adjusted, so their data was also of no use. The others lost varying amounts of weight.

The findings caused quite a stir, with scientists arguing that things like sweat, bodily fluids, and other excretions made precise measurements of the body after death difficult if not impossible. But MacDougall swore he accounted for variables.

Today it’s universally agreed that the sample size was too small and the results too inconsistent to draw any conclusions. Critics have offered up a number of possible explanations for MacDougall’s results, from faulty measurements to outright fraud. 

For his part, MacDougall did caution against making too much of his supposed results, writing, “I am aware that a large number of experiments would require to be made before the matter can be proven beyond any possibility of error, but if further and sufficient experimentation proves that there is a loss of substance occurring at death and not accounted for by known channels of loss, the establishment of such a truth can not fail to be of the utmost importance.”

To date, no such proof has been found. It seems the weight of a soul departing the body is yet to be determined.