What Hollywood gets wrong – Death

Learn Something New Every Day – Lecture 19 – The Science of Death

Hollywood (and fiction to a certain extent) is partial to ‘pretty death’. Fictional characters are often conscious to their last breath, calm, and really only weakened by their impending death. They utter a few final words, or offer a hand-squeeze before their eyes either close or go glassy and their head droops. Perhaps a small puff of air.

All very…pleasant and contained.

Real death is never, ever pretty.

Because function leaves voluntary muscles in favour of more vital organs, the person’s jaw often goes slack and their mouth falls open, their eyelids flutter half open (because opening or closing them takes muscular effort), dehydration causes mucus to collect in a throat they can’t clear and creates a tortured ‘death raggle’ gurgle, the blood leaves the skin for the core leaving it blotchy or cold to the touch, the heart rate and respiration can double causing agitation, confusion, anxiety, hallucination and restlessness. And that’s all without unpleasant wounds to content with.

Other Hollywood myths about death

– The same abandonment of voluntary muscle control is behind the popular myth that a dead person will automatically void their bladder and bowel — they will if it’s very full but not because death causes some kind of surge of peristaltic activity. It’s just that the spincters that keep the bowel and bladder closed may relax when the body centralises its resources elsewhere and so anything waiting to come out…does. But someone with little or nothing in their digestive system to excrete won’t.

– fingernails and hair do not continue to grow after death because that would require metabolism. The scalp and the cuticles shrinks and pull back revealing more hair follicle or nail length which can look like growth.

– the person attending the crime scene is unlikely to be the person undertaking an autopsy. They are two distinctive roles with particular skill sets and are often used to verify each other’s findings and so having your coroner also be your crime scene death investigator is only a fictional convenience.

‘Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works” is a The Great Courses DVD lecture series