The Pain of Dying: An Examination of Whether Dead Bodies Feel Pain

The question “can dead bodies feel pain” is a complex one to answer.

Current research suggests that our bodies no longer feel pain once we die. Once the heart stops beating, blood is no longer transported through the body, and the brain soon dies.

A person’s brain may be active for a short time after they are clinically dead, but there is evidence that our brain and biology protect us from pain.

Even though death is a universal experience, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding what death feels like and what actually happens when we die. The mysteries of death have been the focus of science, religion, and psychology for thousands of years. Every year, new research examining death from a biological or neurological standpoint is published.

The aura of mystery around death is understandable. The human body is indescribably complex and, as a result, so is death. Every person’s experience of death, both biologically and psychologically, is unique.

For these reasons, answering the question “can dead bodies feel pain” is extremely difficult. To answer this question, it is important to consider five main things:

  1. Death and the Brain
  2. Definition of Death
  3. The Stages of Death
  4. How the Body Feels Pain
  5. Near-Death Experiences (NDEs)


Death and the Brain

The question “can dead bodies feel pain” is a complex one to answer. The short answer is that, based on our current understanding of death, we do not believe that dead bodies feel pain. However, the long answer is slightly more complex.

Most doctors believe that dying is not a painful process, even if the time leading up to death can be. Whether due to pain management or loss of biological senses, by the time you die, most people are past the point of being able to process pain.

Though we typically discuss and depict death as a single moment in time, in actuality, death is a multi-step process that occurs when the various components of your body shut down.

When your heart stops beating, oxygen-rich blood is no longer transported through the body. Without oxygen, our brain quickly dies.

However, the brain does not shut down instantaneously when the heart stops beating. In fact, current research indicates that though your brain shuts down after 20-30 seconds, conscious awareness may continue for up to 10 minutes once you are declared clinically dead.

This means that it is possible that your brain may still be aware for a brief period of time after you die. In fact, some people who are resuscitated are able to recount specific details about what happened around them between when their heart stopped and when it was restarted.

During the brief period of time between clinical death and your brain shutting down, your brain is still able to receive messages from your body. As we discuss in “How Your Body Feels Pain” below, pain is felt when the electrical signals from your nerves are processed in your brain. Therefore, until your brain shuts down, it is still able to receive and send “pain” messages to other living components of your body.  

However, the fact that your brain is still functioning does not mean that you will necessarily feel pain. In fact, there is evidence that our brain and biology actively protect us from feeling pain at the time of, and immediately following, clinical death:

  • People who have had near-death experiences tend to report feelings of “relaxation” or “peace.” More information is provided in the “Near-Death Experiences” section below.
  • Neurological studies of animals and humans at the point of death have revealed evidence that our brain activity is actually heightened right before death. However, it appears that the brain’s processes begin to change, and the brain begins to focus inward, instead of on the outward pain that the body is reporting.
  • When blood stops reaching the brain, the brain will begin to die from the top (farthest from the blood) downward. The first portions of the brain to die are our sense of self and our ability to think critically. Therefore, while the base of our brain may still be receiving messages, it is unlikely that we are conscious enough to hear them.

However, the fact remains that we cannot talk to people once they die. As such, we cannot answer with absolute certainty whether or not we feel pain after we die.


Definition of Death

When you die, your body does not die all at once. In fact, various components of your body will continue to shut down for about 24 hours after you are declared “dead.” In general, death is defined in one of two ways:

1. Brain Dead:

The brain stem, the most rudimentary portion of the brain, controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. You are considered brain dead when you no longer have any neurological activity in your brain stem.

Though brain dead is considered death, the remainder of your organs can still be kept alive “artificially” for long periods of time. 

2. Clinically Dead:

Most people are considered clinically dead before they are brain dead. You are considered clinically dead when your heart, breathing, and blood circulation stops. When your blood circulation stops, oxygen is no longer transported throughout your body, which causes the rest of your body to slowly shut down.

Though clinical death is considered death, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (also known as CPR) is still possible and successful in many cases.


Stages of Death

In our discussions and depictions of death, we tend to think of death as a single moment in time. However, once we are clinically dead, it takes about 24 hours for all of the various components of our body to shut down. For example, live skin cells can be harvested up to 24 hours after death.

Death can be broken down into a number of stages:

1. Pallor Mortis

Pallor mortis occurs immediately after death. As soon as capillary circulation (also known as blood circulation) stops, the body begins to pale as the blood sinks away from the skin. Pallor mortis is noticeable 15-30 minutes after death.

During pallor mortis, the brain also stops functioning because it is no longer being supplied with oxygen-rich blood. Like-wise, oxygen-deprived cells throughout the body begin to die.

2. Algor Mortis

Algor mortis, also known as the death chill, begins immediately after death. Once the heart stops beating, and blood stops circulating, body temperature begins to drop. The body’s temperature will fall approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit every hour until it reaches room temperature.

3. Rigor Mortis

When the blood stops circulating, the body is no longer able to produce the energy it needs to function. Without energy, also known as ATP (adenosine and triphosphate), the muscles of the body will stiffen. Rigor mortis sets in 2-6 hours after death and will last anywhere from 18 hours to 2 days.

4. Livor Mortis

Livor mortis is the final stage of active death. Thanks to gravity, the blood that is no longer circulating through the body collects in the lowest portions of the body.

Within 12 hours of death, the pooling blood begins to discolor the nearby tissue, turning the skin blue.

5. Decomposition

The true final stage of death is decomposition. As your body dies, microorganisms that were previously contained to certain sections of the body, or repressed by your immune system, are now given free reign of your body.

Decomposition typically starts in the intestinal tract, where gut bacteria will begin to break down intestinal walls and move into other sections of the body. 

As you can see, death is a gradual process. When we ask whether a dead body can feel pain, we must consider where the body is within the death process.

For more information on the biology behind what happens to your body when you die, Death and Poop: The Dirty Truth about What Happens When You Die.


How the Body Feels Pain

Just like we have to understand death to answer the question “can a dead body feel pain,” we also need to understand how pain is processed in our bodies.

The body feels pain, thanks to electrical communication between the brain and nerve cells throughout the body. When your body experiences bodily harm, the following process occurs:

1. Bodily Harm:

You do something to cause yourself bodily harm, such as pricking your finger on something sharp.

2. Nerves Send Messages to Your Brain:

When you experience bodily harm, microscopic pain receptors (the end of your nerve cells) send electric shocks to your brain via the spinal cord.

3.Your Brain Alerts Your Body:

Once the brain receives the electrical shock from your nerve cells, it transfers the message to various parts of your brain, which in turn transfers the message to your body.

For example, for pain messages, alerts are sent to the somatosensory cortex (responsible for physical sensation), the frontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking), and the limbic system (responsible for emotional responses).

4. Your Body Reacts:

Based on the messages from your brain, your body will react to minimize the pain. For example, if you prick your finger, your brain will tell your finger to pull away from the sharp object.

In the same way, when you touch something hot, it takes a moment for you to register that it is a hot object. That’s because you have to wait for the message to get to your brain!

When determining if a dead body feels pain, it is important to understand what pain is and how our body processes it.


Near-Death Experiences

Near-death experiences are experiences that occur between clinical death and resuscitation. According to collections of accounts (also see “Awareness during Resuscitation – Prospective Study” for the largest study to date) of near-death experiences, people experience a wide array of things, including:

  • Time distortion:

Time seems to slow or stop. Many people have reported that time loses all meaning in the moments leading up to death.

  • Faster-than-normal thoughts:

A study completed by Jimo Borjigin at the University of Michigan found that rats actually experienced higher rates of consciousness at the time of death than they did in a healthy, wakeful state.

This phenomenon is widely acknowledged in Buddhism. Buddhism reports that consciousness becomes more manifest during death, which allows the person to reach a higher state of enlightenment.

  • Feelings of peace and joy:

Surprisingly, though many people report a sense of awareness during near-death experiences, feelings of “fear” and “pain” do not typically accompany it. The majority of people who have near-death experiences report feelings of relaxation, peace, joy, or tranquility.

  • Feelings of being separated from the body:

We’ve all heard the term “out of body experience.” Many people who experience near-death experiences report a feeling of leaving their body and either looking down at themselves or looking down at friends and family.

  • A sense of being in a different, unearthly place:

Near-death experiences are commonly used as proof of an afterlife. People have reported seeing bright lights or unearthly landscapes during near-death experiences. However, there is not currently a way to definitively conclude whether they are entering the afterlife or simply experiencing chemical reactions within their brain. 

  • An encounter with a spirit, such as a deceased relative or divine being:

Similar to the point above, encounters during near-death experiences are also used as proof of an afterlife. People who have near-death experiences are known to see deceased loved ones or a divine being. However, whether the encounter is real or a product of their imagination is open to debate.

Near-death experiences are hard to measure in real time, as neurological monitoring must be completed at the time of death. Therefore, the research on near-death experiences is still in its infancy.

Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan performed a study in which they showed that immediately following cardiac arrest, the brains of rodents showed heightened activity, specifically in the consciousness portion of the brain, for at least 30 seconds after the rats were clinically dead.

Dr. Borjigin believed that this heightened activity was likely linked to near-death experiences. However, the research has not been supported by other research, and there are still other potential explanations.

For example, Sam Parnia, a cardiologist from Stony Brook University Hospital, stipulates that electroencephalography (EEG) activity could be caused by an influx of calcium inside the brain cells when blood flow to the brain ceases.

Still other researchers, such as Cameron Shaw from Deakin University, are skeptical about whether near-death experiences happen after clinical death at all. He, and many other scientists in the field, believes that near-death experiences likely happen before, not after, clinical death. 

Until research is completed on a wider scale, near-death experiences will continue to be an occurrence that mystifies the scientific and medical communities.


Final Thoughts

Understanding what a body feels after death is incredibly challenging. While there are many variables to consider, current research suggests that once we die, our bodies no longer feel pain. We can therefore take comfort in knowing that our loved ones are no longer suffering when they die.


Writer: Taylor Steed

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