6 Creepy Things That Happen To The Human Body (When You Die)
When you leave your body for good, it's got its own way of dealing with the breakup. Instead of eating Cherry Garcia with a garden trowel while watching Lifetime, your cadaver opens the door to an endless parade of potential indignities -- from pests to postmortem boners to literal gore explosions. Resting in peace, unfortunately, is not really an option.
Death really is the beginning of the next great adventure, as long as that adventure was written and directed by David Cronenberg. Here are some of the highlights:
"Angel Lust," Or Dying With An Unavoidable Boner
Let's ease you into this article with some nice classical art. Religious paintings are always so- OH JESUS CHRIST, WHAT THE HELL?!
"What? Never woken up with resurrection wood?"
Yes, once upon a time, creating and viewing images of the Dong of Dongs was a form of deep reverence ... which makes historical sense when you consider that death erections almost exclusively happen in people who die violently, and crucifixion is no picnic. This phenomenon's technical name is priapism, but its rad name is "angel lust," and it's not even exclusive to men (the ladies' version is called clitorism, which should give you a hint of what happens). Much of what we know about this comes from anecdotal evidence throughout history -- specifically, public executions that suddenly turned super awkward. If you found yourself on the wrong side of the law, you stood a pretty good chance of accidentally showing everybody your one-eyed wonder weasel while hanging. It's not a dignified way to go out.
On the upside, the authorities now had another thing to hang people from.
The culprits of this sad spectacle are blood and gravity. You see, a man's flaccid wang is never actually fully relaxed, provided he's, you know, alive. The muscles on the base are working to stop the blood from flowing into the penis and working its magic. In death, the entire thing goes limp, and as long as the gentleman in our morbid example is supine, seated, or lying on his side, his wiener is going to remain his business. But if he dies in a prone position or a vertical one, Mama Gravity can make blood flow the wrong way and we enter zombie boner territory.
So why is this more common in violent deaths? To explain this in simple terms, we need look no further than auto-erotic asphyxiation, which mimics the effects of trauma-induced angel lust (and has a pretty good chance of causing it if you're not super careful). Hanging and strangling cause damage to the brain and often the spinal cord, which is believed to activate central nervous system-induced arousal -- an effect that can sometimes be seen when the brain is damaged by other means (like poison or bullets). We're still learning about the exact nature of non-gravitational angel lust, so in the meantime, try to lie down as you shuffle off this mortal coil, unless you want to greet the Grim Reaper rockin' a wicked chub. We're not judging you.
Your Flesh Can Turn Into Soap Or Wax
In 1875, a company in Philadelphia broke ground for a train depot and stumbled upon a corpse. That's always unnerving enough on its own, but in this case, there was a bonus reason to be freaked out: The man's flesh had turned into soap, as if he'd been victim to a germaphobe witch in a children's story.
The creepiest part is the cat ears, though.
We now know that his name was Wilhelm von Ellenbogen, he died of yellow fever in the early 19th century, and he knew how to rock a pair of stockings -- but he was a complete mystery when he was found. "Soap Man" confused a lot of people on his way from the Philly train station site to his current home in the Smithsonian. Researchers only got around (more like "worked up the courage") to examine him in 1958, but they figured out what happened. It turns out that if your casket has a leak, alkaline soil carried into the coffin with water seepage can transform your fat into soap via a process called saponification. We have no way of knowing how common this is or how many soap men are hiding out there, waiting to traumatize construction workers.
That's not the only way death can transmogrify your flesh, though. More recently, people found this floating in Lake Brienz, in Switzerland:
Their first thought was "sheep" -- but in fact, it was the headless torso of a man. The hard, wax-like substance all over it preserved what was left of the man so well that scientists initially thought the corpse must have been about a year old. Again, they were way off. After finding cherry pits in wax man's digestive tract, investigators were able to radiocarbon date him, showing that he died approximately 300 years ago. Shit, we hope we look this fine at his age.
This can happen to you if you die in a remote or hidden place and aren't found for a while. If the body is exposed to the right environment, it can start spinning a cheesy, waxy, soapy, eventually concrete-y death cocoon out of its own fatty tissue. This not only protects the outer parts of the body -- it preserves materials inside the organs. Why your body bothers to do that when you're clearly dead and rotting, we're not sure. All this accomplishes is making some poor doctors very tired, since they'll have to do a lot of sawing. Hopefully they get some free decorative candles out of it.
Your Casket Can Explode (Especially If It's A Fancy One)
If you're buying a casket, please make sure it's a well-ventilated one. Seriously. You might be thinking, "I'll be dead, why would I care what it smells like in there?" Well, you might not, but the people around you certainly will once you fucking explode.
That's not ectoplasm, unfortunately.
Today, more and more middle-class Americans are opting for above-ground mausoleums and airtight caskets ... which is really, really dumb. For starters, storing decomposing bodies in enclosed, uncooled buildings is just not a good idea, at all, ever. Your embalmed body may be protected from the creepy-crawly things that live in the ground, but it's still rotting. That means it's fair game for whatever happens to be around. When you decompose above the ground, you expose yourself to air and moisture, regardless of whether your family shelled out the extra cash for a special "airtight" casket to keep you fresh longer. You might as well be buying the world's most expensive Ziploc bag.
More importantly, you're setting yourself up for something far, far more likely to traumatize your relatives (and everyone within smelling distance). That "protective" casket you got is a haven for anaerobic bacteria, and they're getting busy in there, slowly turning you into a sludgy paste. When your un-air-conditioned above-ground tomb sits in the hot sun long enough to turn your tasteful resting place into a stew pot, it's a-boilin' over. Pressure builds as the bacteria that have been slowly liquefying your remains emit gases, and after that ... BOOM. Your dead ass is a human juice grenade. You can look up photos of the aftermath if you don't believe us, but we seriously don't recommend it.
Please enjoy this kitten birthday party instead.
When your casket explodes in a mausoleum, your horrified relatives will arrive to find your goo leaking out onto the floor, and there's no way in the world to un-see that. Mausoleum owners know this. That's why they sometimes get sued for opening the caskets to let out the gas -- but they're really doing a huge favor to you, your family, and especially the place's poor janitor.
Morgues Are Basically Hell On Earth
On crime shows like NCIS or Law & Order, the morgue is always a tidy, sterile environment. It's pretty much a giant freezer with a few tables, a wall of meat lockers, and at least one eccentric coroner. There's no bloody offal gumming up the floor drains, and you won't see a single fly -- you could have dinner in there with Gordon Ramsay and be fine.
TV corpses look better dead than most of us do before we have our first cup of coffee in the morning.
And then there's reality. When you die, you basically become food for everything in and around your body, making funeral homes and morgues not unlike the walk-in fridge of a restaurant. Most of them really are clean, properly staffed, and up to code. Others ... aren't. A coroner in hot, sweaty Fresno, California, gave reporters a tour through his building so they could observe the horrifying conditions he had to work in. Maggots dripped from the ceiling in clumps, attracted to the warm, sticky death-stench that comes with the territory when you work with dead bodies in a building with no air conditioning.
Above: Either a photo of the morgue or a typical Hollywood party.
The pest problem isn't limited to bugs. Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., was sued by one of its employees after she was bitten by a rat she found inside a dead lady (the rats took "the low road," anatomically speaking). According to the victim (the bite victim, not the dead person), the hospital morgue was infested with the bastards, which chew their way into the body bags and then enter the bodies via all the worst orifices.
In cases like these, the culprit is almost always state or county financing. Funding for dead body disposal isn't really something you think about until it becomes a maggot-infested literal rat's nest. The money these facilities receive from the state goes toward indigent burials, but when that money runs out, so does the space. Chicago's Cook County Medical Examiner's Office got into trouble in 2012 when the media obtained photos of hundreds of unclaimed corpses organized in the manner of empty pizza boxes in a dorm room. They were reportedly double stacked, covered in trash and old clothes, lying on the floor -- for as long as a year, in some cases.
The only upside to working there is that you can fart with impunity.
And don't think you're out of the woods just because you ended up in a well-funded funeral home with excellent cooling facilities. The Ryder Funeral Home in Western Massachusetts was forced to shut down immediately when an inspection uncovered several bodies in uncooled rooms (including the garage), a corpse that had been rotting in a bag for a month, and another that was left in the viewing room after closing time and stayed there for a full day.
Dead People Sometimes Move Their Arms To Make The "Lazarus Sign"
You know how ancient sarcophagi always feature people making the same crossed-arms pose? That's not because they were constantly mad at their children and trying to look stern.
This is as good a time as any to remind you of King Tut's exploding mummy dick.
That's the "Lazarus sign," an involuntary reflex that some people (for instance, those being removed from respirators) do in their final moments. Or, to be more precise, after their final moments. This unintentionally cruel reflex got its name from Jesus's undead bud Lazarus, and it can be hell on your loved ones, because that's exactly what it looks like: You're coming back from the dead. The singularly disturbing phenomenon is a result of the very same bodily function that keeps you from having to think, "Gee, this is hot!" while your skin fries on a wood stove -- it causes you to withdraw your hand (or foot, face, wiener, whatever) before the pain actually fully registers in your brain. It's a simple signal shot straight into your spine, which contains nerves that connect to every part of your body, allowing the spinal reflex arc to make you move out of danger before your brain can make a judgment call (which is a good thing, because all you would be able to think is "WWAAAAAAAGGGHHHH!!?!!!").
Because these impulses bypass the brain entirely, a person who is truly brain dead can still activate this reflex and instantly tighten the sphincters of everyone in the room.
The Lazarus sign isn't a quick reflex; it takes its time. And when you're standing over the body of a loved one who has been declared dead only to suddenly show signs of life, seconds can feel like hours, and an involuntary response can feel very voluntary. There's a certain deliberation to the motion that reinforces that perception. The patient lifts her arms, crosses them over her chest or just pulls them in against it, holds the position for a couple of seconds, then puts her arms back down. And we have no idea why, other than "nature likes fucking with us."
Postmortem Fetal Extrusion (AKA Coffin Birth)
Yep, there's a reason we saved this one for last: We didn't want you to run away screaming just yet. Postmortem fetal extrusion is, simply put, when a corpse gives birth to a fetus. It's a rare phenomenon, but that's little consolation to the fact that it even freaking exists.
Here's the kitten birthday party again, if you need it.
To be mercifully clear, corpses do not give birth to live infants. This happens because, as a pregnant body decomposes, the fetus is ejected from its mother's corpse by gas buildup (NSFW link). So, by the time a cadaver has filled with enough gas to set the grisly process in motion, the fetus couldn't possibly be alive. More good news: This is mostly a thing of the past, which is why the medical community doesn't really know a whole lot about it. We're gonna call that in itself a good thing, too.
Today, through the modern miracle/potential disaster of embalming with chemical preservatives, coffin birth is virtually unheard of. Gas buildup in dead bodies is basically the result of mass bacteria-farts as the normally harmless colonies that live inside you literally start eating you. The process of preparing a modern cadaver for burial drains the body of the nasty little buggers, eliminating the possibility of gas-propelled horror-births. So if you think The Walking Dead gets too grisly, just be thankful the reanimated ladies don't go around shooting tiny zombies at their victims, you know?
Marina intends to donate her body to science and loves the book Stiff, by Mary Roach. Also, a big hug and shout-out to Seth Friedrich -- thanks for reading, man! It meant a lot to me to hear about you!
You know all those facts you've learned about psychology from movies and that one guy at the party who says, "Actually ..." a lot? Please forget them. Chances are none of them are true. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, the one famous psychology study people can name. It was complete bullshit. Funny story actually, it turns out that when you post flyers that say, "Hey, do you wanna be a prison guard for the weekend? Free food and nightsticks," you might not get the most stable group of young men. So join Jack O'Brien, Cracked staff members Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim, and Psychology Professor Martie G. Haselton of UCLA as they debunk Rorschach tests, the Mozart effec,t and middle child syndrome, so soon you can be that person at the party who says, "Actually ..." Get your tickets here!
For more inner looks at your expired meatbag, check out 5 Horrifying Things Real Dead Bodies Do (Too Weird For TV) and The 5 Most Bizarre Things People Have Done With Dead Bodies.
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