July 08, 2004

Rerun: Posts About Death

These were originally posted at my old site.

Everybody dies, and some of us are curious about that.

A friend of mine suggested I was preoccupied with death on this blog...so on that note, here is a Fun Fact about death (or banking, depending how you look at it):

Egyptians sometimes kept their relatives' mummified bodies above ground several years to be used as collateral to borrow money. Few people defaulted on the deal. If they did, they were refused a burial of their own and forfeited entry to the afterlife.


Apparently I am pretty morbid, because while I was on vacation, I went into the book store in Hayward, Wisconsin and saw two books side-by-side. One was titled "Sex: a User's Guide." The other, "Death: a User's Guide."

I had limited funds available, and wanted both but could not justify buying both. So I had to choose. I chose "Death." (I already know all about sex, heh heh. J/K.) This is a fascinating little book by author Tom Hickman.

He writes about the physiology of death, history of burials, etc. Some of it is kind of gross, but it's all presented in a pretty straight-forward fashion, so it doesn't seem exploitative.

One topic he discusses, of course, is mummification. I am fascinated by Egyptian history and artifacts. I own all the History Channel videos on the topic you could ever want. I have dragged several people along with me to visit New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art so I could go through their unbelievable Egyptian collection every possible chance. I always recommend it to people visiting the city.

However, for all my enthusiasm I am by no means an expert and often learn new things on the topic of Egyptology. That's one of the coolest things about history...there is always more to learn.

And what did I learn from Mr. Hickman? For one thing, the brain was removed from mummies and discarded because the Egyptians didn't see any point to that particular organ. The heart was thought to be the location of memory and intellect. I always knew the Egyptians kept the heart in its place while placing other organs (liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach) in canopic jars. I also knew the brain was, er, scraped out rather unceremoniously through the nose or from behind an eye and thrown out. I just never realized why.

Hickman also notes that Egyptians weren't the first or even best mummifiers. In Chile, bodies were being mummified two thousand years before Egypt. China started a thousand years after the Egyptians, but their work was far more impressive. For example, Lady Ch'eng was excavated from her tomb in 1972. She died over two thousand years ago, but "her limbs were still flexible, and her skin soft to the touch."

I could share more, but I'm thinking that last statement might be a little more information than a lot of people want to know. :-) Pansies. It's a cool little book, if you're curious about such things, check it out.


On the happy occasion of Odai and Qusai's demise, I would like to take this opportunity to share some facts about death. Specifically, the physiology involved.

You are encouraged to skip this post if the subject makes you uncomfortable. First of all, I am not a medical expert in any way, shape, or form. My information comes from a few sources. One is my mother, who is a medical professional. Another is a book I mentioned in an earlier post, "Death: A User's Guide" by Tom Hickman.

From Mr. Hickman, "When a body dies, it does so bit by bit. No longer being pumped and oxygenated, the blood settles on the underside, making the skin there reddish purple. This is known as hypostasis or postmortem lividity, a condition at its most prominent about ten hours after death...Muscles contract (rigor mortis), beginning within about four hours: first the eyelids, then the jaw, neck, and shoulders, then other muscles. After thirty-six to forty-eight hours, as the muscle fibers continue to degenerate, the body relaxes but it is now cold."

Seriously, if you have a weak stomach for this sort of thing, you'll want to skip the rest of this post. Don't say you weren't warned.

"Meanwhile the millions of bacteria in the gut eat through the lining of the digestive system and then invade the rest of the body. At the same time the blood's hemoglobin turns to sludge. The first sign of decay is usually a greenish patch of blood vessels on the lower belly...the pancreas, source of the digestive enzymes, digests itself. Putrefaction spreads as the bacteria proliferate; the veins become outlined on thighs and shoulders. Within a week...the disagreeable smell of hydrogen sulfide and methane has become apparent. Stomach contents may already have been regurgitated into the mouth and air passages...eyes bulge and the tongue protrude...the color of the skin changes to olive to purple to black...Within a few weeks the teeth and nails begin to loosen. Within a month or so tissues liquefy, and the main body cavities burst open." In a coffin, "full skeletonization may take a decade or more...fat people decompose more quickly than thin; those with a fever at death more quickly than would otherwise be the case."

Most people have heard that nails and hair continue to grow after death. This illusion is caused by the skin receding.

Bodies in the ground are taking longer to decompose than they used to...not just due to embalming fluid. The preservatives so common in food are, well, preserving us.

And on that note, have a great day. :-)

Posted by Jennifer at July 8, 2004 05:45 PM