“I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.”
-- Composer Frédéric Chopin
Fear of being buried alive, or “taphophobia” for those wanting to impress dinner party guests, was a genuine concern in the 18th and 19th century, leading to the invention of safety coffins. Medical advancements over the past few centuries have made this more of an irrational phobia than a reality, but there’s always stories surfacing about living people pronounced dead.
The odds that you’re going to come across a seemingly lifeless body are hopefully slim, but it doesn’t hurt to know some reliable methods to make sure a person is actually dead. If it’s an actual emergency you should always call 911 immediately, but if you want to provide the dispatcher with useful info you might need to do a little more than just kick the body a few times. Here’s what you do…
1. Kick Them
OK, OK, don’t kick the possibly dead body. But you should gently poke or shake them. It’s not entirely foolproof however, as an unconscious person may not respond at all, and a corpse may emit air or other noise that would indicate signs of life.
2. Check for a Pulse
Hold your fingertips to the person’s wrist or on either side of their neck and see if you can feel for any sign of a beating heart. Again, this can often be difficult (even for pros) so no pulse doesn’t necessarily mean they are gone for good.
3. The Old Mirror Trick
It’s a gag used in a lot of old movies, but it works. Hold a tiny mirror under the person’s nose and see if the glass fogs up. If you don’t have a mirror, use any glass-based surface like sunglasses or a powered-off cell phone screen. So long as it’s a dark reflective surface so you can easily see the fog.
4. Shine a Light
Using a flashlight, direct the beam straight into the eye. If the pupil constricts, they’re probably alive. No response isn’t a good sign. If you don’t have a flashlight handy, use a flashlight app on a cell phone. (Who knew cell phones would be this handy for diagnosing death?)
5. The Sniff Test
If you happen to have an onion handy, cut it in half and hold it in front of the person’s nose. The pungent odor will work like smelling salts and likely jolt the person awake…if, in fact, they are still with us.
6. The, Um, Other Sniff Test
It’s not pleasant, but often a body will release urine and excrement when it expires (not all the time, it kind of depends on how full the bladder or intestines were before the person passed), so soiled pants are another indication of the person being deceased.
How Doctors Pronounce Someone Dead
Apart from performing many of the tests above, though with more reliable and expensive equipment, doctors or paramedics on the scene use technology. They hook a body up to machines that monitor heartbeat, brainwaves, and respiration. If you’ve ever watched a medical show you know exactly what they’re looking for: A flatline. Doctors may also do an ultrasound to see if there’s any heart activity.