8 Myths About Dead Bodies You Probably Think Are True

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Bodies are weird enough, but it's the dead ones that hold real intrigue. The fact that most of us just don't spend that much time around them means it's hard to separate truth from fiction; corpses have been thought to be responsible for plagues, as well as to carry magic healing properties. Below, some dead body myths that won't give up the ghost—and explanations for the real-life science behind them.

1. HAIR AND NAILS GROW AFTER DEATH.

Corpse under sheet with hand sticking out

Not true! The cell division driving hair and nail growth stops when the body dies and the heart no longer pumps oxygen-filled blood throughout the circulatory system. It does look like things keep growing, though. When a dead body's skin loses hydration, it retracts—and retraction along the nail bed makes it appear as if the nails are getting longer. As for hair, drying skin on the face and head "pulls back towards the skull, making stubble appear more prominent," writes Claudia Hammond for the BBC. "Goosebumps caused by the contraction of the hair muscles can add to the effect."

2. DEAD BODIES ARE DANGEROUS.

There's no science to back up the idea that a dead and decomposing body is harmful to the living just by virtue of its being dead. This might sound obvious, but the belief that disease came from breathing in air infected by corpses was once common.

Miasmatic theory, as it was called, was a widespread belief among members of the medical profession (and the public) in the 19th century. Miasma, an ancient Greek word for "pollution," was the bad air coming from "rotting corpses, the exhalations of other people already infected, sewage, or even rotting vegetation" and was thought to be responsible for the spread of disease. Fortunately, this belief was eventually replaced by germ theory.

3. … AND MULTIPLE DEAD BODIES ARE EXTRA DANGEROUS.

In a publication from the Pan American Health Organization (a division of the World Health Organization), Donna Eberwine explains that the belief that dead bodies spread disease "remains a chronic problem in disaster relief efforts." After natural disasters, there is often a hysteria around dead bodies and a rush to immediately bury them, which distracts relief efforts from more pressing concerns. "The microorganisms that are involved in decomposition are not the kind that cause disease," Eberwine writes. "And most viruses and bacteria that do cause disease cannot survive more than a few hours in a dead body."

There are some exceptions. The level of Ebola virus in dead victims remains high, and their remains should only be handled by people in protective gear (and buried quickly). HIV can live for up to 16 days in a body held under refrigeration, and other blood-borne viruses like hepatitis, along with tuberculosis and gastrointestinal infections, can pose a risk. "The risk of contagion can be minimized with basic precautions and proper hygiene," Eberwine writes.

4. EMBALMING MAKES DEAD BODIES "SAFER."

Egyptian sarcophagus

"Embalming provides no public health benefit," according to the Funeral Consumer's Alliance (a nonprofit focused on affordable death care), citing the Centers for Disease Control and Canadian authorities. While individual morticians might say that a body must be embalmed before viewing, burial, or cremation, the process is generally not legally required. Moreover, since a dead body is usually not in itself harmful, embalming does not make it any safer. On the flip side, embalming chemicals are actually quite toxic, and embalmers must cover their entire body and wear a respirator while working. 

5. DEAD BODIES SIT UP ON THE MEDICAL TABLE.

This horror-movie trope just isn't real. During decomposition, a body might twitch or make small movements and noises due to the gas and waste released by bacteria. A decomposing corpse can definitely move a little, but sitting straight up is just not going to happen.

6. BURYING A BODY WITHOUT A COFFIN OR VAULT MEANS IT WILL CONTAMINATE THE GROUNDWATER.

Nope! Burials usually occur at 3.5 feet below the surface, whereas water can be 75 feet underground. "Mandatory setbacks from known water sources also ensure that surface water is not at risk," the Green Burial Council explains [PDF]. Additionally, because microorganisms living in the soil will break down the chemical compounds that remain in a dead body, we actually give out "more toxic chemicals during a day of living than a whole body will decomposing."

7. CREMAINS ARE "ASH."

Wall of cremation urns

Though we often talk of "scattering ashes," cremains are a little more complicated. Once a body intended for cremation has been burned in what's called a retort, what's left will be put in a cremulator. Sort of like a blender, the cremulator uses ball bearings or rotating blades to pulverize the bones and other remnants into a "grayish, coarse material, like fine gravel," as HowStuffWorks puts it.

8. ALL IN ALL, MAYBE DEATH ISN'T AS SCARY AS WE THINK.

According to psychological scientist Kurt Gray, it's possible that death isn't quite as terrifying as we think it is. Gray studied the responses of death row inmates and terminally ill patients as well as those of people asked to imagine they had untreatable cancer, and found that "while it's natural to fear death in the abstract, the closer one actually gets to it, the more positive he or she becomes," as New York Magazine explains. This may be due to something called the "psychological immune system," a term coined by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. According to Gray, our psychological immune system is engaged when bad things happen. "So when one is faced with death, all sorts of rationalization and meaning-making processes come in," he told New York Magazine. That may sound like your brain's trying to give you a cop-out, but it's much better than living in terror.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

A Team of Cigarette Butt-Collecting Birds Are Keeping a French Theme Park Litter-Free

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iStock

The six rooks pecking at litter within the Puy du Fou theme park in Les Epesses, France, aren't unwelcome pests: They're part of the staff. As AFP reports, the trained birds have been dispatched to clean up garbage and cigarettes butts from the park grounds.

Rooks are a member of the corvid family, a group of intelligent birds that also includes ravens and crows. At Puy du Fou, an educational amusement park with attractions inspired by various periods from French history, the rooks will flit around park, pick up any bits of litter that haven't been properly disposed of, and deliver them to a receptacle in exchange for a treat. At least that's how the system is set up to work: The full team of six rooks has only been on the job since August 13.

Employing birds as trash collectors may seem far-fetched, but the experiment has precedent. The Dutch startup Crowded Cities recently started training crows to gather cigarette butts using a vending machine-like device. Once the crows were taught to associate the rig with free peanuts, the machine was tweaked so that it only dispensed food when the crow nudged a cigarette butt resting on a ledge into the receptacle. The cigarette butts were eventually removed, and the birds figured out that they had to find the litter in the wild if they wanted to continue receiving their snacks.

Crowded Cities had planned to conduct more research on the method's effectiveness, as well as the potentially harmful effects of tobacco on crows, before bringing their vending machines to public spaces. Puy du Fou, meanwhile, has become one of the first—if not the first—businesses to fully implement the strategy on a major scale.

Even if it doesn't prove to be practical, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP that cleaning up the park is only part of the goal. He also hopes the birds will demonstrate that "nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

[h/t AFP]

Online Daters Tend to Be Interested in Partners 25 Percent More Desirable Than They Are

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Online dating may not bring out the best in people (as anyone who’s been ghosted can attest) but it does bring out our optimistic side. A new study suggests that people tend to reach out to fellow online daters who are approximately 25 percent more attractive than they are, according to The Washington Post.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, looked at online dating messaging behavior from heterosexual men and women in four different U.S. cities. Researchers analyzed how many messages people sent and received in January 2014, how long those messages were, and how many messages went unanswered.

They examined daters in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston, including age, ethnicity, and education of the users in their analysis, but kept the profiles anonymous and did not read the messages themselves. (The researchers don’t name the particular site they got their data from, merely describing it as a “popular, free online dating service.” From the details, it sounds a lot like OkCupid or a very similar site: one that allows users to answer open-ended essay questions and list attributes like their religion and body type on their profiles.)

To quantify how desirable a person was, the researchers looked at the hard numbers—how many messages someone received, and how the senders themselves ranked on the desirability scale.

Both men and women tend to aim high, messaging someone more desirable than themselves by about 25 percent, on average. For the most part, users didn’t contact people who ranked lower than themselves on the desirability scale. When they did contact people who were hotter, daters tended to write much longer messages than they did when they contacted someone on their own level, so to speak—sometimes up to twice as long. Women tended to use more "positive" words (like "good" and "happy") when they were writing to hotter dudes, while men actually used fewer positive words when talking to hotter ladies. Men in Seattle sent the longest messages, perhaps because of the city’s makeup—in some populations, there are twice as many men there as women, so heterosexual men face a lot of competition. Although wordy messages in Seattle did have a slightly higher response rate, in other cities, the extra time spent typing out missives didn’t pay off. Given that those messages weren’t any likelier to get a response than a short note, the researchers write that the “effort put into writing longer or more positive messages may be wasted.”

The data also showed how desirability in online dating can be influenced by attributes like age, education level, and ethnicity. For instance, at least as far as averages go, older men tended to be viewed as more desirable than younger men until they hit 50. Women’s scores peaked when they were 18 years old (the youngest age when you can join the site) and decreased until age 60.

Even if you aren’t in the pool of the most attractive users, sometimes, aiming high can pay off. “Even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off,” co-author Elizabeth Bruch explained in a press release.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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