Here’s Why the Tongue Comes Out When You Die

The tongue comes out when you die because:

  • Gases build up from bacteria spreading throughout the body
  • Those gases find many paths out of the body, including the mouth
  • Gases also cause swelling
  • The tongue can swell, and it is then pushed out of the mouth

The body goes through many changes when death occurs. Some of these changes begin straightaway, while others occur hours after death. These are all natural of course – part of the process of dying.

It’s also normal for us to be curious about the process. I’ve heard lots of stories about what happens when you die; no doubt you have as well. However, it is difficult to know how much truth is in them, and what people have exaggerated or simply got wrong.

I have lost several relatives, as many people have when they get older. However, the process of death isn’t something you’re likely to know a lot about. I have seen a few parts of that process, and while it wasn’t pleasant at the time, it has given me a greater understanding of how it works.

I decided to look at the topic in more detail and to find out the truth behind some of the things I’ve heard mentioned in interviews with pathologists who perform autopsies. I also wanted to know where the factors I was familiar with tend to happen. Here’s what I found out.


The Tongue Does Pop Out After Death

Natural processes occurring in the body following death cause this to happen. So, while it sounds like something someone would make up, it is true.

Our bodies have around 40 trillion bacteria in there.

While this sounds awful, many of those bacteria have a vital role to play in helping keep things healthy. In fact, the more different types of bacteria you have in your gut, the better it is for you overall. An imbalance can lead to various health issues.

When you die, these bacteria do not die along with you. Instead, they continue doing what they do best. In fact, the bacteria begin to digest the intestines they have happily lived in for ages.

Our bodily processes stop those bacteria from getting out into other parts of the body while we are alive. That is no longer the case after death.

You may wonder how this relates to the tongue popping out. The reason this happens is because the activity of all that bacteria leads to gas – and lots of it. It needs to go somewhere, and so it tends to find any route it can take out of the body.

Yes, this does include the obvious one… as wind expels during death the same way you and I would expel it during life. Enough said there. It has surprised a few people working in morgues who weren’t prepared for it..

However, it comes out in other ways as well. The gases lead to bloating, and while the stomach does tend to bloat first, any part of the body can experience this.

Gases can also escape out of any orifice, and since the mouth is open, we can expect gases to come out there too. These can move the tongue, which can also swell during the preliminary stages of decomposition after death.

The swelling process coupled with the gases therefore cause the tongue to come out of the mouth. It makes sense when you understand the biology and natural processes behind it.


Lots of Things Happen Upon Death

The tongue popping out of the mouth always garners attention as people relate to it and can imagine it. However, I know that lots more things occur as well.

Autolysis occurs first, which means self-digestion… and yes, that is what it sounds like! When you are alive, your body sends oxygen to your cells. Death means this no longer occurs.

They become more acidic and toxic, leading to further breaking down of body tissues. Researchers discovered that the microbes existing in our gut no longer remain there after death. The act of death means the immune system stops, no longer able to work, and keep the microbes restricted to the gut in their place.

These microbes move out into the body and digest everything in their path. This happens faster in some body parts than others, depending on the distance they need to travel and how long it takes each organ to begin breaking down.


After Death, There is Still Life in a Body

This may sound strange, yet it is a fact I kept coming across whenever I read about or watched a pathologist or mortician talk about bodies. You and I have seen this now with news of all that bacteria too. All kinds of things start happening.

I knew that a body began to change as the heart stopped and the blood stopped pumping. I found a family member a few hours after they had died and clearly recall the ‘staining’ on the underside of the body, easy enough to see without changing their position in bed where they’d died.

When the heart stops, blood pools as it no longer fights against gravity. This appears as either a blue color or a reddish-purple color. This is known as postmortem lividity. The common term is staining.

It is a natural process and I recall knowing what it was and realizing that nothing could be done for that person as the time of death had long passed by that point.


Calcium Ions Cause Rigor Mortis

No doubt you have heard of rigor mortis – another step in the process following death. The phrase is Latin for stiffness of death, and it is an ideal description. When I found my relative, they had been gone for a few hours and were in full rigor.

They were curled up in bed, and I tried bending their arm to feel for a pulse. That was when I realized they were long gone, as I could not move them even a millimeter.

This is caused by calcium ions running riot in the muscles, causing them to stiffen. At the same time, you can imagine the bacteria we talked about above, running riot elsewhere, leading the body along the path to the swelling that will eventually cause the tongue to come out.

All part of the process.

During this natural process, everybody (and every ‘body’) undergoes the body changes. Enzymes get to work too, and this begins in all the organs and around the whole body. The liver and brain are usually first on the list to begin decomposing.

I always thought of decomposition as a word that described the latter stages of the process. I think of it as the stage when the body begins to look far less like a person.

However, it officially begins just a few minutes after death, which was surprising to me to think about. It takes many months for the process to complete, unless the person is cremated, in which case the final stages are bypassed as the body is reduced to ashes.

Of course, following death, decomposition is inevitable. Embalming slows the process but does not stop it. It is enough to delay decomposition and help the facial features stay as close to those you remember for that person in life. A lot of work goes into making a loved one appear normal at this stage if a viewing is to take place.


The Tongue Coming Out Does Not Immediately Happen

Since the body must begin to produce the gases that create this effect, it won’t happen for some time. While many of the bodily processes that occur seem gruesome and even frightening, they are all natural.

The tongue won’t suddenly pop out as if in a cartoon. It occurs over time but would certainly be noticeable to those managing the body after death. However, the tongue isn’t the only thing that moves.

Forensic scientists working at a research facility in Australia have looked at how bodies decompose after death. Of course, they cannot sit and watch these bodies – instead, they set up time-lapse cameras to do the job for them.

This process confirmed that movement happens soon after the body dies. It is during this early stage (the time-lapse filming took place for 17 months to the date of the report I read) that the tongue comes out of the mouth due to those gases.

The movement continued throughout the filming process though. The body went through various stages of decomposition and through to mummification. And the movement kept coming!


It’s All Natural

You can see that some of the unusual stories you may have heard do have truth in them. While the old story about cadavers sitting up after death likely isn’t true, movement of some sort certainly is.

Learning more about it makes it less strange and more understandable too, don’t you think?


Writer: Allison Whitehead

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