What are the physical signs of death?

Death is a physical process that takes many paths over an unpredictable length of time. Dying people grow weaker and weaker, become sleepy, and lose their appetites. When they don't eat or drink, they do not suffer with feelings of thirst or hunger the way a healthy person would. The liver, kidneys, heart or other major organs begin to fail. The brain shuts down. Eventually death happens. The following are some of the physical signs of the death process: 
  • A person may have less energy as death approaches. He or she probably won't be able to do very much and will need to save energy for important things, like visits from friends and family. Afterwards, he or she may need to rest to recover.
  • It is normal for the appetite to diminish in the final weeks of life.
  • The brain may change as illness advances. It's normal for someone who was lively and talkative to become less so as death approaches.
  • Stiffness in the bones and joints is common with reduced use.
  • When one major organ begins to shut down, it often leads to other organs shutting down. As organs begin to shut down, most people experience drowsiness and may gradually lose consciousness. Eventually the heart and lungs will stop working and the body dies.
  • Breathing patterns change. A person may breathe more slowly or more quickly. None of this is usually uncomfortable. If struggling or gasping, medicine can control these symptoms. Congestion may create a rattling sound.
  • Heart rates change. The pulse may speed up or become irregular. The rate doesn’t matter and isn’t felt by the person. Blood pressure usually falls. As the heart fails and causes changes in circulation, skin color may change. A dusky, grayish discoloration may appear around the mouth and nail beds. The skin on the arms and legs may have a dusky, lacy appearance. This is not felt by the person and needs no special treatment.
  • There may be some spontaneous movements as the brain shuts down. These are likely not intentional movements; rather, they may be reflexes. The facial expression may change. Urine output will often diminish and stop as the kidneys shut down. This typically does not cause discomfort to the person.
  • The eyes may not close, especially if there has been extensive weight loss before death. The lids may no longer reach far enough to completely close the eyes. The mouth may remain open.

Continue Learning about End Of Life Issues

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.