03/28/2008 02:46 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Happens When We Die

Dr Clare Gerada
General practitioner

When you die, you have to have your death certified by a doctor and a death certificate or a cremation certificate issued. If we have had contact with a patient in the previous two weeks and know the cause of death - if someone has been terminally ill, say - we can sign the death certificate immediately. If we haven't seen the patient in the two weeks before their death, or if they have died after being discharged from hospital, then we must report it to the coroner, who may request a postmortem. The coroner may also request a postmortem if drugs or alcohol are suspected, or if there's any suggestion of a violent death. It's my job to say if somebody is dead, not how they died.

What I'm essentially looking for is brainstem activity. The brainstem is the part of the brain where the body's vital functions are controlled - the breathing, the heart, the brain itself; it is the computer room of the body. If that bit of the brain is dead, then the person is essentially dead. You can still have reflex actions, so you may twitch after death.

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