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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Death

Do we poop our pants when we die? Can decapitated heads keep on living? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Death. It comes for us all, but how much of what we know about it is dead wrong?

Lie #1: Everyone Gets A Boner and Shits Themselves

Doing a shit while breathing your last breath isn’t uncommon in the event of quick, violent deaths — your muscles, including your sphincter, relax, meaning that if there’s a poo in the chamber it’ll probably seep out. However, most deaths are slower, more drawn-out affairs taking place in hospital beds — generally, by the time the cold hand of winter comes along, there’s not a lot of eating going on, and therefore, very little doodie to be done.

As for boners, a “death erection” (which, madly, isn’t the name of a metal band, despite there being three different bands called Goat Perversion, which is nowhere near as good a name) does sometimes occur, but only in certain circumstances. Occasionally, depending on how a body is lying, livor mortis (the settling of the blood within a dead body) can cause a penis to become engorged, and even for prostatic fluid to seep out of it, which can look a lot like semen. It’s something generally associated with hanging deaths, occurring in about a third of them, as the blood is more likely to pool in the lower half of the body. Interestingly, according to art historian Leo Steinberg, a lot of Renaissance artists also painted Jesus Christ sporting a post-crucifixion hard-on.

Lie #2: If You Cut Someone’s Head Off, They Die Immediately

You know how, sometimes, you feel like a shitty situation couldn’t get any shittier, and then it does? Imagine how Charlotte Corday must have felt back in 1793: She was beheaded for murder, at which point a dude picked up her head and smacked her in the face. Eyewitness reports say that when this happened, she pulled a shocked, appalled expression (a sort of, “Oh, for fuck’s sake” look) before expiring.

When you cut off a head, you also cut off the blood supply to the brain, meaning it’s curtains for the former noggin-owner. But it’s not as instantaneous as people could probably hope for — the general consensus is that four or five seconds of full consciousness isn’t out of the question after the guillotine blade drops. A 2011 study on rats done at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands detected brain activity in lopped-off heads for a good four seconds after the lopping.

Admittedly, this isn’t a lot of time to do anything, and severed nerves and vocal cords — plus the likelihood of shock — mean you’ll struggle to bust out a sick post-mortem freestyle. You could fit in a Napalm Death song or two if you had it all cued up and someone else pressed play, but realistically, you’d likely just see the inside of a basket and think a lot of swear words before being enveloped in the night.

Lie #3: More People Are Alive Now Than Have Ever Died

A frequently cited fact about the ever-swelling population of the earth is that there are now so many people living that they outnumber everyone that came before. While that would probably be good news in a human vs. ghost war, it’s not even slightly true: The current population of the world is around 7.5 billion, while estimates from the Population Research Bureau suggest that, over the 50,000 years homo sapiens has walked the earth, around 108 billion have been born. This means that about seven percent of the people who have ever been born are currently alive, and if everyone dead suddenly came back to fuck us up, we’d be outnumbered 15 to one.

Lie #4: The Body Sheds 21 Grams As The Soul Leaves It

Massachusetts physician Duncan McDougall was the most bullshit scientist ever. In 1907, he put dying people in hospital beds on giant scales to try and figure out what the soul weighed. It was a tiny sample size of six: one lost weight then put it back on; two lost weight upon dying and then lost more shortly later; the scales fucked up weighing one of them; and one poor bastard died while the test was being set up. 

However, one lost 21 grams, a figure that ended up in the New York Times and has stuck around since, most notably in the title of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2003 film, despite the whole thing being garbage. 

In a later experiment to prove that dogs don’t have souls — so therefore don’t lose weight when they die — McDougall deliberately poisoned 15 dogs. 


Lie #5: Your Dog Will Remain Loyal to You After You Die

There are loads of stories about movingly loyal hounds who, upon the deaths of their masters, guard their graves endlessly. There are statues of them all over the world — noble, pure, hairy companions. What’s much more likely, though, is that your mutt will start eating your face (do not click on that link) before you’ve even cooled down. 

As we’ve mentioned before, sometimes they’ll mean well, licking you in an attempt to wake you up, but eventually, they’ll break the skin, taste blood and go nuts. Sometimes they’ll do it after a few days because you’re too dead to feed them, and they’re hungry. Other times they’ll just start eating you less than an hour after you die. Cats will eat you. Hamsters will eat you. Everything will eat you. Death is coming. Love is futile.