8 Myths About Dead Bodies You Probably Think Are True

iStock
iStock

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.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

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