“Rest in peace” is a wish that many of us have made when a loved one has passed away. However, an Australian researcher has found that after someone dies, their body doesn’t necessarily experience total calmness or serenity. In an effort to enlighten us all, then, they’ve shared what really happens to us after death – and it’s surprising to say the least.
Alyson Wilson made her discovery while working at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research – also known as AFTER. This organization, which is part of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has its own “human body farm” facility, where researchers study human remains in various outdoor conditions. And such scientific research helps bolster criminal investigations – especially those that concern deceased victims.
So, for 17 months, Wilson used time-lapse cameras to record a body as it decomposed on AFTER’s grounds, with the resulting footage revealing the truth about how remains break down over time. And, strikingly, the process is not as straightforward as it once seemed. In fact, the truth could very well change the ways in which experts investigate deaths from here on out.
For many years, then, the United States had the world’s only facilities for studying human decomposition. And, of course, these institutions provided plenty of valuable research into the way in which bodies break down after death. But researchers also recognized that Australia’s unique climate could yield interesting results in this specialist area; they hoped, too, that any findings could aid Australia’s police force.
As you may have guessed, ecological and geological conditions in Australia differ from those in the States. In order to study decomposition as it happens in their environment, then, scientists in this corner of the world knew that they had to open their own research facility.
So, that’s precisely what AFTER came to be. You see, the donated space allows researchers to learn more about forensic taphonomy – the study of postmortem decomposition and remains. Experts have been working on the grounds since 2016, which is when AFTER opened its doors. And the facility brings together not only forensics experts, but also academics and police officers, as members of all of these groups are involved in death investigations.
What’s more, the specialists there use the facilities to better understand human decomposition through a variety of lenses: archaeological, historical and forensic. Their findings therefore help criminal justice professionals as well as those in science and medicine to better understand their field. But what does this center actually look like? Well, for one, you may just be surprised at how big it is.
Yes, in a remote area outside Sydney, maximum security fencing borders mark the perimeter of the 12 acres of bushland in which the studies take place. And while the land in this area inevitably doesn’t represent all of the country’s unique climate zones, tests can be applied nationally and internationally to places with similar weather patterns.
So far, experts have focused on fine-tuning their ways of estimating a person’s time of death from the bones that are left behind. To do so, they have studied a slew of different factors, including bacterial activity, weight loss and surface changes. And taking these separate criteria into account helps to give a more accurate picture of what happened to a victim.
According to AFTER’s website, the “likely outcomes of the research are an improved understanding of time-dependent factors involved in the deterioration of human skeletal remains and teeth.” This information would also take into consideration the ways in which different types of tissue break down in Australian-specific conditions.
All of this combined would make a huge contribution to the international taphonomic community. Yet this hasn’t been the only experiment undertaken at the Australian facility since its grounds opened. And another AFTER study may just have an impact on the investigation of large-scale war crimes.
Specifically, an AFTER team headed by Dr. Soren Blau and Jon Sterenberg are going to look into the effects of decomposition in mass graves. The research will focus on the environmental changes that are brought about as a result of the decaying process and whether these can help experts find graves of any size.
Similar analysis has in fact already taken place at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Centre. However, AFTER’s study will mark the first time that such an experiment has been carried out in the southern hemisphere using human bodies. And having data from both sides of the globe can help when applying the results to real-world scenarios.
Another area the team look to cover is the study of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released into the air as bodies decompose. These VOCs vary from place to place, so an Australian study will help pinpoint the chemicals that emanate from human remains in the Sydney area. And such knowledge would have a very practical implementation – especially for police investigators.
In particular, understanding the VOCs that appear in Australia would greatly improve the training of cadaver dogs that are taught to sniff out these important elements. You see, officers would be able to train their canines with geographically specific smells, and this in turn would help the pooches to pinpoint the location of a decomposing body.
But, of course, the team at AFTER can’t do any of this research without the proper materials. And this doesn’t just include the protected fields in which they work. No, the experts also need human bodies to study and examine, and they acquire these through donations. Cadavers are bequeathed either following the approval from a deceased person’s next of kin or from someone who gives consent before they die.
As of September 2019, AFTER had a total of 70 donor bodies on hand to help with its research. And associate professor Jodie Ward highlighted the pivotal role that these human remains played in their studies. She told ABC News, “This research and training is only possible because of the generous and invaluable contribution our donors and their families have chosen to make to forensic science.”
Indeed, those donations allowed researcher Alyson Wilson to perform a study that revealed some fascinating truths about bodies after death. To begin, she used a donated corpse and time-lapse cameras to check the accuracy of a formula that has been used to calculate decomposition. Given that the equation came from the northern hemisphere, though, she wanted to check if it worked accurately in Australia first.
And Wilson’s work was vital, considering just how different the northern and southern hemispheres can be. She explained, “Until we had AFTER, most of the science on how bodies decomposed was based on the northern hemisphere, where the climate is different, the weather is different and even the insects can be different.”
To check that the decomposition equation worked on both sides of the world, then, Wilson used the time-lapse cameras to capture the process as it happened. What’s more, her work marked the first time that such technology has ever recorded decomposition. And after the videos had been logged, the researcher was finally able to confirm that the original formula worked on her side of the globe.
Yet Wilson’s footage did more than just confirm the merits of the equation calculated in the northern hemisphere. You see, the medical science undergraduate noticed something surprising in the time-lapse recordings of the decomposing body. As the human remains broke down, they moved – and they weren’t just slight changes of position, either.
Wilson described the footage by saying, “What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body. One arm went out and then came back in to nearly touching the side of the body again.”
What made the footage even more shocking, though, was the time span over which the corpse continued to move. Wilson said that she knew the body would shift as decomposition began. However, it continued to change its position over the 17 months’ research – a much longer period than had been expected.
But Wilson has her theories as to why the cadaver moved so drastically over this nearly one and a half-year span. In particular, she believes that the body contracted as the ligaments dried out over time. And knowing that corpses behave this way post-mortem could be a huge insight for police investigators, the specialist continued.
As Wilson told ABC News, “This research is very important to help law enforcement to solve crime, and it also assists in disaster investigations. It’s important for victims and victims’ families, and in a lot of cases it gives the victim a voice to tell their last story.” Others in the field couldn’t help but agree – and elaborate further, too.
The U.K. based expert Dr. Xanthe Mallett was particularly enthused about Wilson’s recordings. The University of Newcastle lecturer also works with AFTER, and she had supervised the undergraduate’s work. And Mallett noted that many investigators had previously assumed that a discovered body was found in the same arrangement in which it had originally been left.
Until recently, detectives may have blamed a body’s changed position on another person or perhaps even an animal. They now have to contend with Wilson’s findings, however, and the idea that bodies may just move on their own. And such a possibility was news to everyone in the field, as Mallett explained.
Specifically, Mallett told ABC News, “What isn’t known is that the body moves as part of the decomposition process, and it’s the first time that it’s been captured, as far as I know.” But while AFTER’s deputy director, Dr. Maiken Ueland, agreed, she did point out some reasons why bodies have already been known to shift.
According to Ueland, gas can build up in the remains of a deceased person, causing a cadaver to move during the early and middle stages of decomposition. Insect activity can also be the impetus for a slight corporeal shift. Nevertheless, the deputy director concluded that she had yet to see as much movement as Wilson’s cameras had captured.
And Ueland reiterated that watching those time-lapse clips would prove pivotal in crime investigations. She explained to NBC News, “Being able to watch the human decomposition process in detail, as it happens, over time in 30-minute intervals will be invaluable in the search for better ways to establish time since death by determining when certain visible markers occur.”
Plus, if decomposing remains can move on their own, then investigators may be able to better understand any changes that a corpse has undergone. Ueland explained to NBC News, “Knowing that body movement can result from the decomposition process rather than scavengers or original placement will be important when it comes to determining what happened – particularly if this movement is much greater than first believed.”
But that’s not all. AFTER has discovered something else about human decomposition, although this finding is definitely Sydney-specific. In 2018 it published a study revealing that its own environmental conditions helped to preserve bodies in an abnormal way. Namely, corpses left on the facility’s premises tended to mummify naturally rather than breaking down.
This is not as strange as it may sound, however. While scientists would have previously expected bodies to mummify in autumn or winter, AFTER found that they reacted this way all year round in Sydney’s conditions. Even those cadavers placed outdoors in the heat of summer would mummify and continue to do so for years after the fact.
And Mallett explained the shock of such a finding. She told NBC News, “Previously, if the police had asked me if a set of human remains were found and they were mummified, I would have said that it’s likely that that person was left outside in autumn or winter.” She added that this information – much like the discovery that bodies move as they break down – would ultimately provide detectives with further insight.
Indeed, Mallett claimed that knowing how corpses naturally mummified would require investigators to approach their timelines with an open mind – since the process could actually occur at any point in Australia. She added, “It opens up the entire year for mummification in the correct circumstances, and it stops us from going down the wrong path [in investigations].”
Now, this finding only served to highlight the value that AFTER has to offer Australian investigators along with forensic science. And, as it happens, the grounds are routinely used for re-enacting outdoor crime scenes or preparing them for major humanitarian crises or disaster-type scenarios.
But director Ward has even bigger visions for the future. She told NBC News, “We are currently considering how the facility may be used to study different death investigation scenarios such as indoor environments, drowning, fire or concealments to further aid criminal and coronial investigations.”
Taking into account the valuable findings that have already been uncovered at the Sydney facility, it makes sense that AFTER hopes to open another branch. Yes, while speaking to ABC News, Mallett confirmed plans for a second location, which will also be in Australia. That said, it would likely take up to two years for the facility to get up and running.
A new center would be a real boon, too, as the Sydney campus only represents a small fraction of the climates and environments encompassed within Australia’s borders. And finding out how different habitats affect body decomposition is vital – both for the country and for the forensics community at large.
As Mallett went on to explain to ABC News, “It’s essential that we replicate as many of those [circumstances] as possible, because in other environments in Australia – imagine the desert – the remains would skeletonize quickly depending on the time of year they are put out. We need as many facilities in different locations [and] in different altitudes, so we can get as much information in an Australian context as possible.”
So, now we have some idea as to what happens to our bodies after death. But what about our brains? Well, one scientist seems to think that when the time comes, it’s likely that we’ll know about it. And he even claims that it takes a while for a person’s brain to fully switch off following their passing.
For millennia, humanity has pondered what happens after we die. Before any notions of an afterlife come into play, though, there’s the question of what we experience at the very point of death. And according to one scientist, we may actually be fully aware that we’re no longer alive. The theory goes that our brains don’t shut off once we’re dead – or, at least, not immediately.
If the scientist’s theory rings true, then it raises all sorts of potential implications and questions. Is it just your brain that’s working? Or can you still see and hear things – even if you don’t have motor control? But even if you can’t, the very prospect of being aware of your death sounds quite distressing.
And if you do still have hold of your senses, it might be even more stressful. For instance, you could hear a doctor pronounce you dead if you’re in hospital. It’s hard to imagine the thoughts that might race around your mind in that moment, knowing there’s literally nothing you can do to change your circumstances.
Before you get too distraught about the thought, though, remember that it’s just a theory. And while nobody really knows for sure, people have all sorts of ideas about what happens after we die. Many religions have presented various schools of thought to which their followers subscribe, for example. However, these differ not just on where we go, but also on which part of us leaves.
Indeed, some religions posit that only part of an individual’s consciousness carries on beyond death. Others, meanwhile, suggest it’s their entire soul or “spirit.” Generally, though, most theistic views of the afterlife split into two camps: the journey of the consciousness into a spiritual plane or reincarnation into the physical world.
Abrahamic religions such as Christianity or Islam, for instance, teach the concept of heaven and hell. Generally, followers of these religions believe that the soul will live on for eternity in one of these places after death. Just where you end up, however, is tied directly to how you’ve lived your life on Earth.
In fact, that system is a common thread between most modern religions. Major Indian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism believe in reincarnation, for example, where the soul lives on in a new biological form. But the precise nature of this form is thought to hinge on the concept of karma, again taking into account your actions in your life.
In this way, many religious teachings on life after death involve some kind of reward or punishment. Atheists, on the other hand, believe that there is literally nothing after death. For example, the late physicist Stephen Hawking told The Guardian in 2011, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.”
Outside of religion and other beliefs, there are the anecdotal stories of those who’ve “died” – or been pronounced clinically dead – and regained consciousness. In a 2017 Reddit thread, several users who’d endured that experience described seeing curious phenomena, such as lights and stars. Others, however, wrote that they saw and felt absolutely nothing in those moments where their hearts stopped.
Another, meanwhile, described an altogether different experience. “What appeared to be a single light resolved into first one, then several, then millions upon millions of stars,” wrote Reddit user mysterious_baker. “As I approached the centre, it seemed like I was joining a universal consciousness – a being made up of the thoughts, emotions and experience of everyone and everything that had ever lived.”
Now, though, one scientist has come up with another theory. Dr. Sam Parnia is an assistant professor of medicine at New York City’s highest ranking public medical school, the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. And he suggests that people in the earliest stages of death might, in fact, still experience some form of consciousness.
Parnia hails from the U.K., where he graduated from London’s Guys and St. Thomas’ Medical School in 1995. He then earned his PhD in cell biology in 2007 at the University of Southampton, where he still holds the title of honorary research fellow. Most of his focus since has been on cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and near-death episodes.
In 2010 Parnia finished up training in pulmonary and critical care medicine, which he’d undertaken between New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College and the University of London. He is also a trustee on the Horizon Research Foundation – an organization that was set up in 1987 to finance research into near-death experiences.
Much of Parnia’s research, then, has been in these arenas of critical care – in particular, cardiac arrest resuscitation. For instance, he advocates for the use of automated resuscitation methods, including by machines. And he claims that people who die from a loss of blood or heart attacks can actually be revived as long as a day after death.
The primary focus of Parnia’s work, however, has been in brain injuries that stem from cardiac arrests. Through his work, he hopes to reduce the number of long-term injuries and patients being left in vegetative conditions. And Parnia’s research is concerned with – among other things – the methods that are used to get oxygen to the brain during cardiac arrests.
Nevertheless, that is far from the only area in which Parnia is interested. The scientist has also looked into the notion of consciousness in patients who are experiencing cardiac arrest. And it’s this avenue that has led him to his theory that the brain may actually keep working after a person dies.
Parnia has conducted several studies over his career that examine the consciousness of cardiac arrest sufferers. For example, in 2001 he published a study that had spent a year looking into the claims of survivors of cardiac arrests. Of the 63 interviewees, seven could remember being unconscious and four fit the bill for near-death experiences.
Then, in 2013 Parnia put out a book titled Reversing Death. In the book, he posited the question of what happens to the “soul” – a person’s self, character and memories – in the time between death and resuscitation. He also argued that the methods he employs for CPR might be capable of saving as many as 40,000 lives every year in the United States.
Meanwhile, Parnia highlighted the need to keep blood oxygen levels high during a cardiac arrest. This is already happening in Japan, where a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is used to stop oxygen levels dropping below 45 percent. At this point, you see, there is zero chance of the heart starting again, according to Parnia’s studies.
In fact, there have apparently been cases where people have been resuscitated hours after dying. In Parnia’s book, he references the case of a particular female from Japan. “She had been dead for more than three hours,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “And she was resuscitated for six hours. Afterwards, she returned to life perfectly fine and has, I have been told, recently had a baby.”
Parnia’s methods are apparently backed up by his results. After all, patients reportedly had a 33 percent chance of being revived from death at the Stony Brook University Hospital in 2012, where Parnia was head of intensive care. That’s a roughly 17 percent higher chance than the average American hospital, according to figures published in The Guardian in 2013.
That survival rate falls in line with Parnia’s own approach to cardiac arrests. “It is my belief that anyone who dies of a cause that is reversible should not really die any more,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “That is, every heart attack victim should no longer die… If you can manage the process of death properly, then you go in, take out the clot [and] put a stent in, the heart will function in most cases.”
Then, in 2014, Parnia published the results of another study into cardiac arrest cases. In the wake of this four-year global study, he concluded that “near-death experience” is actually far too limiting a term. “Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning,” he said in a press release.
At the time, the so-called AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study was the largest ever conducted into near-death experiences. Its sample consisted of 2,060 patients across 15 hospitals in Austria, the U.S. and the U.K. And it was also the first instance of researchers had attempted to validate claims of consciousness or out-of-body experiences.
The results of the study were published in a journal called Resuscitation in October 2014. Of the several claims the study made, one was that patients experienced consciousness that may have corresponded with events that really happened. “This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions,” Parnia said.
In fact, one patient reportedly experienced consciousness up to three minutes after their heart stopped beating. “This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted,” Parnia continued.
Nevertheless, Parnia admitted that such a low incidence rate meant that the claims couldn’t be proven conclusively. But they also couldn’t be disproven. This meant – in Parnia’s eyes – that the phenomenon of near-death experiences merits “further genuine investigation without prejudice,” as he wrote in the study’s report.
According to Parnia, the definition of brain activity after death is tied to the very moment the heart stops. When no blood is circulating to the brain, you see, it stops functioning practically right away. As Parnia told Live Science in 2017, “You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex – all that is gone.”
Performing CPR resumes the blood flow to the brain, but it’s only a tiny proportion of what’s needed. That’s because, according to Parnia, you’re only sending around 15 percent of the normal amount of blood to the brain. So while CPR is useful for slowing down the rate at which brain cells die, it’s not reversing the effect altogether.
Drawing on his extensive research, Parnia told Live Science that patients have given anecdotal evidence of consciousness after their hearts have stopped. “They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working,” he said. “They’ll describe having awareness of full conversations [and] of visual things that were going on that would otherwise not be known to them.”
Reportedly, medical staff who were present at the time that those anecdotes were given were able to verify them. And perhaps unsurprisingly, they were shocked to learn that their patients, who’d technically been dead, had been able to recall specific details. It’s those anecdotes that provide the basis for Parnia’s claims.
If your brain does keep working beyond the point of death, though, don’t look to Hollywood for the answers. After all, movies such as Flatliners suggest that resuscitation can enhance normal brain activity. In the original 1990 movie, the characters experience visions while “flatlining.” And in the 2017 remake, the five medical students who pursue near-death experiences have newfound mental capacities.
However, Parnia told Live Science that “there isn’t like a sudden magical enhancement of their memories. That’s just Hollywood jazz.” What a near-death experience often does provide, though, is a new outlook on life, according to Parnia. “What tends to happen is that people who’ve had these very profound experiences may come back positively transformed,” he said.
Other scientists have contended with Parnia’s research. For instance, Mike McRae, who is a science writer at Skeptic magazine, argued in 2014, “While Parnia’s work contributes valuable data to understanding near-death experiences as a cultural phenomenon, his speculations do indeed sit on the brink of pseudoscience.”
Back in 2003, meanwhile, neurologist Michael O’Brien poked holes in another element of Parnia’s research. In a BBC documentary, Parnia claimed that the mind and brain were independent concepts. O’Brien disagreed with this approach, suggesting that there’s more likely to be a physical reason for near-death episodes.
In that same documentary, psychologist Susan Blackmore also voiced her views that physical explanations are more convincing than Parnia’s theories. She claimed, for instance, that near-death experiences are “recollections of what happens as consciousness is lost or as it is regained, but not while unconscious.”
By 2013, of all the people Parnia had spoken to in his intensive care unit, around half claimed to have clear memories of the time when they were dead. “It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts [but] your individual self – persists for a least those hours before you are resuscitated,” he concluded to The Guardian.
In the same interview, Parnia also stated that he doesn’t have a religious angle on his studies. However, he argued that almost every avenue of life that used to be explained by religion is now explained through science. “One of the last things to be looked at in this way is the question of what happens when we die,” he said. “This science of resuscitation allows us to look at that for the first time.”
At the moment, Parnia is working on a follow-up to the 2014 study titled “AWARE II.” It’s predicted to conclude in 2020. And much like its predecessor, the research’s aim is to examine hundreds of cardiac arrest sufferers across various locations. This time, though, the tests are using a tablet to show images to patients being revived to understand more closely whether they’re experiencing consciousness.
Despite Parnia’s extensive research, however, it seems that there’s still no way to say for sure what happens when we die. Nevertheless, his theory that the brain continues to function offers another possibility. And it’s one that, when coupled with his other work, Parnia hopes will lead to improved resuscitation rates worldwide.