Unless you are caring for an elderly or terminally ill person, it may be hard to imagine watching a person move through the stages of dying. There are accidental deaths, but most people are fully aware when their imminent death is near. For people battling a disease or those who are winding down like an old clock, it is important to identify the stages of dying.
People are not always be able to choose the time and the circumstances of their death. It is especially startling for those who feel vibrant mentally and are not ready to leave this life. Recognising the signs of death is important to allow family and friends to be present when the dying person is ready to pass on. Nearly all cultures have specific rites of passage, such as the last rites administered by a priest in the Christian faith. Even in times of war, people who die are given some form of last rites before they are buried or cremated. The importance is to honour the life of the person who has died and to respect his soul.
Technically, death occurs when the heart stops beating and cannot be revived by a heart refibrillator or other modern medical means of resuscitation. In leading up to this stage, a person may be placed on life support to keep her heart beating, so blood continues to circulate to the brain and to the rest of the body. Body temperature will drop about -16.9 degrees C every hour. The liver remains warm the longest and if the body is found, time of death is established based on the temperature of the liver. About four hours after death, rigor mortis will start to set in. About 12 hours after death, full rigor mortis will set in, with the body's tissues tightening. The body will start to decompose unless preserved, buried or cremated.
As a person moves towards death, he typically becomes thinner and the mouth and tongue may seem to be very dry. Later, bodily fluids, such as blood, urine and semen are reduced. The person may complain of feeling cold as body heat is also lessened. Physical movement may become difficult or very reduced. Near death, the individual may not appear to have any memory.
Death can be sudden and immediate if there is a fatal blow to the head and the brain and/or heart cannot function. However, someone dying from cancer or other terminal illness may linger for months or years. As every terminal illness is different, the amount of time it will take to reach death also varies greatly. Dying by natural means is also dependent on each individual's health or illness. The actual physical stages of dying once the heart stops beating on its own, is similar. Rigor mortis normally sets in about 12 hours after death, and the body will begin to decompose.
Perhaps the greatest misconception is a deep-seated fear that when we die, somehow, a part of our consciousness will remain "alive" and while our physical body is dead, there will be an external witness that will linger and suffer as we physically wither. Gesh Kelsang Gyatso, in "Death and Dying," states that once an individual meets the "black" awareness in her mind, she is not yet dead. It is only when her consciousness leaves the body that she is so. Gyatso, a Buddhist, writes at length about the dying process and rebirth. He states that each individual has very similar stages of physical death.