30 Astonishing Facts About Death

iStock.com/AlexSava
iStock.com/AlexSava

Death is the start of a great adventure—never mind that you might not be around for it.

  1. You can be declared dead in some states but considered alive in others. That's because New York and New Jersey allow families to reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs.
  1. One of the first visible signs of death is when the eyes cloud over, as fluid and oxygen stop flowing to the corneas. That can happen within 10 minutes after death if the eyes were open (and 24 hours if the eyes were closed).
  1. Today, there are about 300 bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hope that science will one day be able to bring them back to life. (Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not one of them.)
  1. It's a myth that hair and nails grow after death. What really happens is that the body dries out, so the nail beds and skin on the head retract, making nails, stubble, and hair appear longer.
  1. Rigor mortis is only temporary. It's a result of certain fibers in the muscle cells becoming linked by chemical bonds, but usually goes away in a day or two as those bonds break down. How long it lasts depends on the temperature in the environment, among other factors.

A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death
A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death.
iStock.com/patty_c
  1. Two of the gases responsible for the distinctive smell of death are called putrescine and cadaverine. They're produced when bacteria break down the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively.
  1. Bodies can become covered in what looks like soap after death. Technically known as adipocere (and sometimes also called grave wax), it's a byproduct of decomposition that happens as the fat in a body decays under wet, anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian each have an adipocere-covered corpse on display.
  1. There are more than 200 corpses of failed climbers frozen on Mount Everest.
  1. The low-temperature, low-oxygen, highly acidic environmental conditions of European peat bogs can preserve bodies with remarkable detail for centuries, and even millennia. One of the most famous examples of these "bog bodies" is the Iron Age Tollund Man in Denmark. When his body was discovered in 1950, it looked so fresh his discoverers thought they'd found a recent murder victim.

A skull against a black background
iStock.com/ianmcdonnell
  1. Scientists are currently studying the "necrobiome"—all the bacteria and fungi in a corpse—to figure out whether changes in the microbes alone can provide clues to the time of death. The concept is known as the "microbial clock."
  1. People used to believe that the blood of the freshly executed was a health tonic, and would pay executioners a few coins to drink it warm from the gallows.
  1. "Hop the twig," "yield the crow a pudding," "snuff one's glim," and "climb the six-foot ladder," were all once slang terms for death.
  1. Dead bodies generally aren't dangerous just because they're dead. But in the 19th century, there was widespread belief in "miasmatic theory," which said that air coming from rotting corpses and other sources of decay lead to the spread of disease. This belief was more or less replaced by germ theory.

Feet on a morgue table with toe tag
iStock.com/fergregory
  1. Embalming is rarely required by law, except in certain situation where bodies leave state borders.
  1. The average human body produces between 3 and 9 pounds of cremated remains after being burned. The cremation chamber, known as a retort, can get as hot as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  1. The Victorians often took photos of dead loved ones as part of their grieving process. These postmortem photographs became keepsakes that were displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, and worn inside lockets.
  1. In at least one version of telegraph code, LOL meant "loss of life."
  1. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of a previous pope, Formosus, exhumed, perched on a throne, and questioned about his "crimes" (which were mostly about being on the wrong side of a political struggle.) The event is known as the Cadaver Synod.
  1. The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than undertaker. The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer's Monthly.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln
A statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose embalming widely popularized the practice
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  1. The embalming of Abraham Lincoln for the journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, is widely credited with encouraging everyday acceptance of the practice.
  1. You're more likely to be killed at a dance party than while skydiving.
  1. Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, artists used ground-up mummies as paint pigment. (It was also thought to be a potent medicine.)
  1. The idea that graves need to be 6 feet deep comes from a 1665 plague outbreak in England, when the mayor of London decreed the burial depth to limit the spread of disease.
  1. No Mormon mourning is complete without Mormon funeral potatoes, a cheesy casserole that usually involves cornflakes. Other foods associated with death include pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), traditionally eaten on Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico; ossa dei morti ("bones of the dead") cookies in Italy, meant to represent the bones of dead saints; and Victorian funeral biscuits.

Mormon funeral potatoes
Mormon funeral potatoes
GreenGlass1972, Wikimedia // Public Domain
  1. Contrary to popular reports, it's not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway. But since the town has no nursing homes and only a small hospital, residents are required to move to the mainland once they become elderly. It is true that it's so cold there bodies barely decompose.
  1. "Human composting," in which bodies decompose into dirt in reusable "recomposition vessels," could soon be legal in Washington state. The results don't smell, and are suitable for use in the garden.
  1. The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado, is held each year in honor of a 110-year-old corpse located in a local Tuff Shed and surrounded by dry ice (it's a DIY cryonics set-up). The festival features coffin racing, frozen salmon tossing, costumed polar plunging, and frozen t-shirt contests.

Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images
  1. In the 19th century, several inventors came up with "safety coffins" equipped with bells, flags, and air tubes and designed to help people avoid being buried alive.
  1. Although the etiquette guides for Victorian mourning varied widely, widows mourned for a total of two-and-a-half years, while widowers mourned for three months.
  1. In the 17th century and beyond, human skulls were soaked in alcohol to create a tincture called “the King’s drops" that was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments. King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe.

10 Facts About Christopher Marlowe

A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
John K Thorne, Flickr // Public Domain

Christopher Marlowe is more than a footnote in William Shakespeare’s life, even though that’s the position he’s most often relegated to, especially in fiction. It’s obvious why: Shakespeare is the most famous English playwright, and Marlowe is merely one of the most famous English playwrights. Plus, since Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, he ends up bursting onto the scene in cameo appearances during tales focused on the Bard.

The other reason? We simply don’t know that much about him.

Born in 1564, Marlowe led a brief, extraordinary life even before you get to all the mythology and conspiracy theories that have grown up surrounding him. He offered a memorable poetic voice that paved the way for Shakespeare while crafting stories of outsized personalities forever flying too close to the sun (or the Devil).

Here are 10 facts about a man we should know more about.

1. Christopher Marlowe achieved a lot in a short time.

Rupert Everett was almost 40 when he portrayed Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, but Marlowe only lived to age 29. Marlowe built on the work of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville among others, and his unrhymed, iambic pentameter—specifically the wildly popular and oft-imitated Tamburlaine the Great—represented an evolution in style that became an accepted structure in Renaissance English theatre. It’s what Shakespeare used, and what you probably learned about in high school literature class.

2. Christopher Marlowe wasn’t going to graduate Cambridge until the government intervened.

A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1587, Marlowe had the Elizabethan equivalent of too many absences from his master’s program at Cambridge University, and there were rumors that he was preparing to go to France to become a Catholic priest. Cambridge officials considered refusing to award his degree, but the Privy Council (Queen Elizabeth’s advisers) sent them a letter denouncing the rumor and explaining that Marlowe had been operating to “the benefit of his country” and had done “her Majesty good service.”

3. Christopher Marlowe might have been a spy.

The "good service" he was doing for Her Majesty? The Privy Council never explained. Nevertheless, the secretive work, the religious nature of the rumors during an era when England persecuted Catholics, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, often recruited young men attending Cambridge, have created the foundation for the theory that Marlowe was part of a spy network. At the very least, Marlowe did some undisclosed work for the government, which got him a helping hand that explained his school absences.

4. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in Holland.

In 1592, about five years after the wild success of Tamburlaine, Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in the Dutch town of Vlissingen. This was a crime punishable by death, but Marlowe seems to have walked away with no, or very light, punishment. Naturally, some think this supports the idea that Marlowe worked as a spy.

5. Christopher Marlowe translated ancient poetry.

In addition to his plays (he wrote at least four, and some say seven), Marlowe also wrote poetry—"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and "Hero and Leander" most notably. In the former, a shepherd woos a lover by glorifying nature, and the latter retells a Greek myth where a man swims a narrow sea to reach the woman he loves. Marlowe also translated ancient works, including the first book of the Pharsalia, a Roman epic by Lucan about Caesar facing Pompey the Great in battle, and Ovid’s books of love poetry, Amores.

6. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for holding heretical views.

In 1593, the English government had a largely welcoming attitude to Protestant immigrants, so authorities were livid when anti-immigrant tracts began being posted on the streets of London. One that was judged to "exceed the rest in lewdness" alluded to two of Marlowe’s plays and was signed “Tamburlaine.” As part of a sweep targeting suspicious characters, authorities arrested and then tortured Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, who asserted that an unorthodox religious tract found in his room belonged to Marlowe. A warrant was issued, and Marlowe presented himself to the Privy Council, who told him to check in with them every day with them until further notice. He died 10 days later.

7. Christopher Marlowe's death inspired conspiracy theories.

The official story is that Marlowe was killed on May 30, 1593 while arguing about money in a boarding house with an associate named Ingram Frizer, and that very well may be the truth. But the strange circumstances around the event are numerous: Marlowe had been arrested for being an "atheist" only 10 days prior but received no real punishment for it; Frizer (and the two other men there) had all been employed by spymaster Walsingham; and even contemporaries doubted the plausibility of the coroner’s report. The list of people who apparently might have had cause to want Marlowe dead is long (right up to the queen herself), but the most fanciful theory is that the whole event was faked so that Marlowe could escape a very real death if convicted for religious heresy.

8. Christopher Marlowe pushed against anti-LGBT bigotry in his work.

Some scholars think Marlowe may have been gay, but (like so many other elements of his life) there is no conclusive evidence. However, there is concrete evidence that he treated same-sex relationships differently than other writers of the time. In other work of the same period, gay characters were usually villains, but Marlowe wrote about Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston with humanity and beauty in Edward II. Some experts believe the play upheld conventional views on gay relationships by “punishing” Gaveston with death and killing Edward II in a way that evokes sodomy, but, even if so, Marlowe still covered the topic throughout the play with greater complexity and consideration than his contemporaries.

9. Westminster Abbey installed a window memorializing Christopher Marlowe in 2002.

The Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey is home to the graves of over 100 poets and writers, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried there in 1400. Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas's Church in Deptford, London, but shares a memorial in the form of a window at Poet's Corner with Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde, and more. The space was donated by The Marlowe Society, who included a question mark next to his death date.

10. Shakespeare paid tribute to Christopher Marlowe in verse.

There would be no Shakespeare without Marlowe. Honoring the young trailblazer after his death, Shakespeare included one of Marlowe’s lines from Hero and Leander in As You Like It (“Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?”) and had a character possibly allude to Marlowe’s killing. There are also nods in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Of course, Shakespeare’s highest homage came in how often he echoed Marlowe’s poetic style and dramatic themes. (Though definitely not written by Shakespeare, there’s also a 1981 rock ‘n’ roll musical tribute to Marlowe that’s set in the 16th century but somehow also included miniskirts.)

10 Bold Breaking Bad Fan Theories

Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

It’s been nearly six years since Breaking Bad went out in a blaze of gunfire, but fans still haven’t stopped thinking about the award-winning crime drama. What really happened to Walter White in the series finale? What’s the backstory on Gus Fring? And what did Jesse Pinkman’s doodles mean?

While El Camino, Vince Gilligan's new Breaking Bad movie, offers definitive answers to at least one of these questions, these fan theories offer some alternative answers—even if they strain the limits of logic and sanity along the way. Read on to discover the surprising source of Walt’s cancer diagnosis, and why pink is always bad news.

1. Walter White picks up traits from the people he kills.

Walter White is an unpredictable guy, but he’s weirdly consistent on one thing: After he kills someone, he kind of copies them. Remember how Krazy-8 liked his sandwiches without the crust? After Walt murdered him, he started eating crustless PB&Js. Walt also lifted Mike Ehrmantraut’s drink order and Gus Fring’s car, leading many fans to wonder if Walt steals personal characteristics from the people he kills.

2. Gus Fring worked for the CIA.

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) in Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito and Javier Grajeda in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Who was Gus Fring before he became the ruthless leader of a meth/fried chicken empire? Well, we know he’s from Chile. We also know that any records of his time there are gone. And we know that cartel kingpin Don Eladio refused to kill him when he had the chance. Since Don Eladio has no qualms about eliminating the competition, Gus must have some form of protection. Could it be from the U.S. government? A detailed Reddit theory suggests that Gus was once a Chilean aristocrat who helped the CIA install the dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. Once Pinochet became a liability, Gus went to Mexico at the CIA’s behest to infiltrate a drug cartel. His alliance with U.S. intelligence kept him alive even as his work got more violent, and helped him bypass the normal immigration issues you'd typically encounter when you’ve murdered a bunch of people.

3. Madrigal built defective air filters that gave Walter white cancer.

Madrigal Electromotive is a corporation with varied interests. The German parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos dabbles in shipping, fast food, and industrial equipment … including air filters. According to one fan theory, Gray Matter—the company Walter White co-founded with Elliott Schwartz—purchased defective air filters from Madrigal and installed them while Walt still worked at the company. The filters ultimately caused Walt’s lung cancer, pushing him into the illegal drug trade and, eventually, business with Madrigal.

4. Color is a crucial element in the series.

Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) and Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)
Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris as Marie and Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

Color is a code on Breaking Bad. When a character chooses drab tones, they’re usually going through something, like withdrawal (Jesse) or chemo (Walt). Their wardrobe might turn darker as their stories skew darker—like when Marie ditched her trademark purple for black while she was under protective custody. Also, pink signals death, whether it’s on a teddy bear or Saul Goodman’s button down shirt.

5. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead exist in the same universe.

Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead both aired on AMC, but according to fans, that’s not all they have in common. There’s an exhaustive body of evidence connecting the two shows—and one of the biggest links is Blue Sky. The distinctively-colored crystal meth is Walt and Jesse’s calling card on Breaking Bad, but it’s also Merle Dixon’s drug of choice on The Walking Dead. Coincidentally, his drug dealer (“a janky little white guy” who says “bitch”) sounds a lot like Jesse.

6. Walter white froze to death and hallucinated Breaking Bad's ending.

Bryan Cranston in the 'Breaking Bad' series finale
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In her review of the Breaking Bad series finale “Felina,” The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum suggested an alternate ending in which Walt died an episode earlier, as the police surrounded his car in New Hampshire. He could’ve frozen to death “behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start,” she theorized, and hallucinated the dramatic final shootout in “Felina” in his dying moments. This reading has gained traction with multiple fans, including SNL alum Norm Macdonald.

7. Jesse’s superheroes are a peek into his inner psyche.

In season 2 of Breaking Bad, we discover that Jesse Pinkman is a part-time artist. He sketches his own superheroes, including Backwardo/Rewindo (who can run backwards so fast he rewinds time), Hoverman (who floats above the ground), and Kanga-Man (who has a sidekick in his “pouch”). The characters are goofy, just like Jesse, but they may also reveal what’s going on in his head. Backwardo represents Jesse’s tendency to run from conflict. Hoverman reflects his lack of direction or purpose, while Kanga-Man hints at his codependency.

8. Madrigal was founded by Nazi war criminals.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) in 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston and Michael Bowen in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

This might be one of the wilder Breaking Bad theories, but before you write it off, consider Werner Heisenberg: The German physicist, who helped pioneer Hitler’s nuclear weapons program, is the obvious inspiration for Walt’s meth kingpin moniker. While Heisenberg only appears in name, there are plenty of literal Nazis on the show. Look no further than Uncle Jack and the Aryan Brotherhood, who served as the Big Bad of season 5. At least one Redditor thinks all these Nazi references are hinting at something bigger, a conspiracy that goes straight to the top. The theory starts in South America, where many Nazis fled after World War II. A group of them supposedly formed a new company, Madrigal, through their existing connections back in Germany. Eventually, a young Chilean named Gus Fring worked his way into the growing business, and the rest is (fake) history.

9. Walter white survived, but paid the price.

Lots of Breaking Bad theories concern Walt’s death, or lack thereof. But if Walt actually lived through his seemingly fatal gunshot wound in “Felina,” what would the rest of his life look like? According to one Reddit theory, it wouldn’t be pretty. The infamous Heisenberg would almost certainly stand trial and go to prison. Although he tries to leave Skyler White with information to cut a deal with the cops, she could also easily go to jail—or lose custody of her children. The kids wouldn’t necessarily get that money Walt left with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, either, as they could take his threats to the police and surrender the cash to them. Basically it amounts to a whole lot of misery, making Walt’s death an oddly optimistic ending. (This is one theory El Camino addresses directly.)

10. Breaking Bad is a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle.

Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of Breaking Bad.
Doug Hyun, AMC

Alright, let’s say Walt survived the series finale and didn’t stand trial. Maybe he started over as a new man with a new family. Three boys, perhaps? This fan-favorite theory claims that Walter White assumed a new identity as Malcolm in the Middle patriarch Hal after the events of Breaking Bad, making the show a prequel to Bryan Cranston’s beloved sitcom. The Breaking Bad crew actually liked this idea so much they included an “alternate ending” on the DVD boxed set, where Hal wakes up from a bad dream where "There was a guy who never spoke! He just rang a bell the whole time! And then there was another guy who was a policeman or a DEA agent, and I think it was my brother or something. He looked like the guy from The Shield."

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