Everything You Know About Dying Is Wrong

01/07/2014 12:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Better to be cremated than to fade away?

Although death and taxes have long been known as the only two things you can truly count on, what if dying isn't exactly what you thought it to be? From multiple well-funded immortality projects to new studies that are reshaping the way we think about what being "dead" actually means, you might want to know a bit more about what awaits you in the ever-looming grave, or wherever you go when you die.

Your body can embarrass you even after death.

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You've probably heard that hair and nails continue to grow after death. This may sound gross, but not only is that not exactly true, but there are far more embarrassing things that happen. First off, although hair and nails may appear to grow, what is really happening is the skin is losing moisture and therefore shriveling back and exposing more hair and more nails.

When you die, you'll also likely urinate, defecate and, depending on your gender, possibly even ejaculate -- all are possible. This happens mainly due to the loss of brain function that keeps your body in check, and is then forced through the first stiffening of the body's muscles followed by an eventual return to relaxation and release. If you're male and die face down, blood begins pooling to the the parts of the body closest to the ground, which can also cause an erection.

And if you're curious how long it will take to become a skeleton, after about a week, skin can easily be pushed off and after a month, teeth and everything else start to fall out.

There's a scientific explanation for why your life "flashes before your eyes."

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It is now believed that instead of the brain becoming more inactive during the final moments of life, brain activity actually surges, causing a hyper-aware mental state. This heightened state of consciousness can cause unexpected things to happen, whether that be "life flashing before your eyes" or a "light at the end of a tunnel," which is also helped along by the loss of blood and oxygen flow to the eyes. The feeling of time slowing down during near-death moments also may simply be a misremembering of that traumatic experience.

We may be closer to living forever than ever before.

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Calico is Google's recently launched immortality project, which will aim to reverse the aging process, whether that means just for "five or 10 years of healthy life," as one Harvard Medical School professor suggested, or if truly successful, living forever. Although Calico, or the "California Life Company," has become the highest-profile project of its nature due to it coming from Google, another huge project is being run by a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Itskov, which aims to solve immortality by the year 2045. Iskov's plan involves building android bodies for humans, into which brains could be transferred, allowing them to live forever in the never-decaying (or at least easily replaceable) robo-body.

If you're curious about the philosophical ramifications of immortality, this interview with Philosopher John Fischer is a great place to start, while the New York Times also published an op-ed worth reading.

We might have a flawed understanding of when someone is actually "dead."

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You've probably heard of people being pronounced "dead," only to "come back to life." This apparently happens about three times a year in Great Britain alone. Due to new resuscitation studies, there's growing research that we might not have the best idea of when people are actually "dead." In the rare instances of successful resuscitation after brain activity has appeared to stop, some people have been able to recount conversations and other memories that a "dead" brain should not have experienced. There isn't a "death moment," and the process actually takes place gradually as various functions shut down. Perhaps over time we'll learn new resuscitation techniques that will make revival success stories more common.

We're running out of room for local cemeteries and cremation is much cheaper than typical burial.

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It's already becoming fairly impossible to find burial space in areas such as New York City, but entire countries like England might run out of burial space "in 20 years." Baby boomers have caused a burial boom, but as the world population continues to grow it will become increasingly difficult to find new burial space that developers haven't snatched up first. One solution might be to go the cremation route, which is actually way cheaper than buying a burial plot, not to mention the cost of a coffin, headstone, etc. Forty-two percent of Americans were cremated in 2011, double the rate from the prior fifteen years. As burial space gets more expensive as available land disappears, that number may continue to climb.

If you're interested in what the cremation process looks like, here's a short YouTube video.

You might be breathing in dead people -- but you don't need to worry.

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With higher cremation rates come increasing concerns about the proper procedure and disposal to insure we aren't breathing in the ashes of the dead. This horror story from a town outside Ottawa, Canada, shows what happens when you do it wrong. Soot from the Hope Crematorium spewed ashes into the air and forced nearby residents to keep their windows perpetually closed. As one home-owner put it, "It makes you feel like you're breathing in the remnants of a … dead body."

Apparently ingesting these ashes doesn't constitute a health problem, unless it becomes a constant, highly concentrated issue that could lead to something similar to coal miner's lung. So, if Tupac's friends actually "smoked his ashes" or Keith Richards truly snorted his father's ashes with cocaine, the negative effects of the drugs that were mixed with the remains would have been more harmful than the ashes themselves.

Around 286 Americans die every hour.

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According to the Center for Disease Control, 2,513,171 Americans died in 2011. This comes out to a bit more than 286 American deaths every hour or about 6,885 a day. In comparison, the United Nations estimated 58,093,000 people died in the entire world during 2011, which would be about 159,159 deaths a day or 6,631 an hour.

You can be pronounced legally dead while still being very much alive.

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A 61-year-old man named Donald E. Miller Jr. was declared "legally dead" by a judge, despite attending the court hearing as a clearly living, breathing human being. Miller was first declared dead by the same judge in 1994 after having gone missing for years, leaving thousands in unpaid child support and leading his ex-wife to make the appeal in order to receive his social security benefits. When Miller re-emerged after years of wandering the United States, he hoped to be re-instated as a living American citizen in order to get back essential rights and a social security number. The judge ended up ruling against Miller, saying that in Ohio where the case was held, rulings of death can't be reversed if the judgment has existed for over three years. A ruling that Miller was indeed alive also could have forced his ex-wife to repay years of social security benefits, financially devastating her and her new family. The judge was quoted as saying, "I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned."

Perhaps if death as we know evolves the point where it is no longer inevitable, at least we'll still be able to count on taxes and never-ending email.

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