Things You’ve Always Incorrectly Believed About Dead Bodies

Death has always been a topic of discomfort for people, and because of that, there have been many myths surrounding it. In particular, there are many misconceptions about the bodies of the deceased. Everyone has heard a great many fascinating "facts" about corpses, but many of these bits of trivia are things that don't happen to your body when you expire. These myths may be lies we tell ourselves in order to feel better, or just little fibs meant to gross people out. However, these body rumors may also give the post-life process a bad reputation. 

What really happens to your body after you pass can be incredibly gruesome. The process of decomposition is a gradual and very involved one, and the animals, insects, and bacteria that can prey upon the body may be numerous. It can even take years. But in this case, fiction is stranger than fact.

If you're looking for creepy cadaver facts, there are plenty of those elsewhere bound to make your skin crawl. But if you're looking to correct the falsities you've believed over the years, you've come to the right place.


  • Your Hair And Nails Don't Continue To Grow
    Photo: shannonkringen / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Your Hair And Nails Don't Continue To Grow

    You've probably heard that your hair and fingernails continue to grow even after you have passed. This is flatly false. For your fingernails to grow, they need new cells to be created, and the body needs glucose in order to produce cells. However, when you expire, your body stops producing glucose, so your fingernails cannot possibly grow.

    The same issue applies to hair. Hair grows due to the burning of glucose, and again, when your heart isn't pumping oxygen to the body, cells can't be created or divided for very long. Therefore, your hair stops growing right around the time you pass.

    So, why are these myths still continued? Part of it has to do with the fact that hair and fingernails do appear to continue growing. This is because the skin and flesh around hair follicles and around nails begin to recede after some time has passed. As the skin draws back, it makes it look like the nails and hair has gotten longer, even when it really hasn't. 

  • A Cadaver Isn't Always Stiff
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    A Cadaver Isn't Always Stiff

    We've all heard the stories that bodies become stiff postmortem, but it's actually far more complicated than that. For one thing, rigor mortis, the process that causes your body to go stiff, can take up to 12 hours to fully set in. After that, rigor mortis keeps your body rigid by contracting all of your muscles. But it doesn't last forever.

    Instead, 18 hours or so later, the process of rigor mortis will actually start to reverse. The muscles will lose their tightness and will no longer contract, which allows your body to stop being so rigid. This means that, after two days or less, your body will again be floppy and relaxed the way it was at the time of expiration. 

  • Burying A Body Without A Coffin Isn't A Risk To Water

    There are some long-standing traditions that society still abides by, one of which is not to bury a body without a casket. One of the beliefs behind the coffin movement is the notion that a corpse buried without a coffin can pollute groundwater.

    However, simply by the nature of how and where we bury bodies, it's not much of a problem. We generally bury bodies about three to four feet below the surface and not near known water sources. As well, groundwater flows much deeper, at 75 feet. In between the body and the water is a whole mess of minerals and microorganisms, all of which break down chemical compounds that come from cadavers.

    So, even if a body isn't contained in a casket, whatever fluids or toxic substances leak out will be nullified before it ever gets into the groundwater far below. 

  • Bodies Don't Sit Up In The Morgue
    Photo: Henry Robinson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bodies Don't Sit Up In The Morgue

    There have long been stories of bodies terrifying people in the morgue, with tales going back hundreds of years. The stories usually go that some morgue worker was toiling late at night when suddenly, the body of a recently deceased person sat upright on the table and scared the heck out of him.

    The logic behind this is that bodies contain a lot of gases, which may cause the muscles to contract. As a result, the body will be forced to bolt upright as if it were still alive.

    But, the story is false. After expiring, the body does fill with various gases and has to expel them through the anus and even groans. Your muscles may also twitch. Still, in order to sit up, you need a whole lot of your stomach muscles to work together, and then to hold you upright, they'd need to hold that position. Because the body is not alive, it is not able to do either of these things.

  • Embalming Isn't Beneficial To Public Health
    Photo: Harper's Weekly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Embalming Isn't Beneficial To Public Health

    Why do we embalm bodies? We've believed for a long time that embalming somehow keeps the public safe. That's simply not true. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, embalming actually gives no health benefit to the public. It's not even legally required in most places and is in fact outlawed in some places if the body has certain contagious diseases. 

    Embalming is usually done for religious or personal reasons, or to make a body look better for viewing.

    Oddly enough, the embalming process itself is quite dangerous, and anyone who does it has to work with highly toxic chemicals. During the process, they have to cover their entire body and wear a respirator in order to stay safe.

  • Cremated Bodies Are Not 'Ashes'
    Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Cremated Bodies Are Not 'Ashes'

    We've all heard of scattering someone's ashes, but that's actually a misnomer. When a body is burned, it's done so in a cremation chamber, also called a retort, which burns at a very high temperature. Unlike wood, which burns down to a sort of ash, our bodies have lots of different components, and only a few of those components are left behind as remains during cremation.

    We're mostly water, so as the fire burns, our moisture vaporizes leaving behind little but bones. These bones become calcified in extreme heat and begin to flake and crumble. Then, after all the burning is pretty much done, everything left over is put into a cremulator, which crushes the bones into a substance like gravel.

    So, unlike the fine ash you might imagine, most urns contain a substance that looks more like something you might pave a road with.