The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s what happens to your body when you die

Even after you depart, there's a lot of chemistry that still goes on inside you. The American Chemical Society and mortician Caitlin Doughty teamed up to explain. (Video: Reactions/American Chemical Society via YouTube)

Just in time for Halloween, it's time to talk about death. The American Chemical Society has a great video (above) on the chemical processes that distinguish the dead from the living.

Cellular death is probably the grossest (but also the most interesting) part of the process: Without oxygen, your cells lose their steam. The so-called powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria, is usually churning out a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). But oxygen is a vital component in ATP's production, so your cells' power centers will quit not long after your lungs do.

It's the death and inevitable breakdown of these cells that make your body look cozy to a whole host of new bacteria. And as those bacteria chow down on the remains of your cells, they spit out their own waste — producing the sights and smells of decomposition.

Putrescine and cadaverine are the two compounds associated with corpse smell. Unfortunately, bacteria can also make these compounds show up in the body fluids of living humans — so if you ever think you reek like the dead, you might want to see your doctor.

If your morbid curiosity is still unsatisfied, you should check out Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, YouTube-famous mortician Caitlin Doughty's new book about working with the dead. You can read a sample online, but fair warning: It's from a chapter dealing with the death of small children.

For a broader take on the posthumous activities your body might partake in, take a look at Stiff. The 2003 book by Mary Roach takes a sweeping look at everything from cadaver farms, where donated bodies rot slowly outside in the name of science, to the use of human bodies as crash-test dummies.