There are several myths and urban legends passed around about the dead and what people have seen dead bodies do. These stories are all lies. Every single one of them. Even if your uncle was a mortician and he says his friend saw it happen all the time, your uncle is a liar. I will discuss two.
Bodies sit up on the embalming table.
Have you ever driven past a raccoon or deer dead on the roadside and seen it sit up? You haven’t, because it’s not a thing that happens.
Shortly after death, a human body may have minor involuntary twitches of the arms and legs. This can be most easily compared to a device whose battery is dead, but will still power on briefly. However, a mortician rarely sees a body shortly after death. If I were to get a death call right now, for a person who died at home, it would probably take me a couple of hours before I was in possession of that body. I’d have to get a suit on, arrange for a van, check my intern’s schedule, then go to the house and wait until the family was actually ready for me to take the body. Sometimes they aren’t. I’ve been called and then asked if I could give them more time. I did. Left the body on the gurney (after first asking if they would prefer I transfer him to a bed) and returned a few hours later.
Often, the first time a body is moved after death, air will escape from the lungs and will sound like a groan. This really freaks people out and has led to more than one family claiming that their loved one is not really dead. The air has to go somewhere, and if it escapes out the throat, it will make a noise. I’ve learned to explain this to families if I am arriving at a home soon after a death, and I give them all the time they need to be satisfied the person is actually dead.
I have only embalmed one body while still warm. The family gave me permission to proceed immediately and the case was done in 45 minutes; not only my fastest job but also one of the best-looking. But after the body has been refrigerated and rigor mortis has set in, no more involuntary movements are taking place. Most families, especially American families, are not in a hurry to move forward with the funeral arrangements and it may be a day or two before I even have permission to embalm the body.
I am familiar with how some urban legends develop. A slightly-true story is told over and over again, and some people start embellishing to sound more interesting, until the final story is nothing at all like the first one. So, over several repetitions, “I saw a guy’s arm twitch a few minutes after death was pronounced” can turn into “I heard this guy sat up on the table during the embalming and then he stole a scalpel.”
Bodies do sit up in the crematory, due to the heat causing intense muscle contractions. And they don’t just sit up. Their heads turn. They raise their arms and legs. I don’t watch anymore.
Hair and nails continue growing after death.
There are a slew of products on the market for women who want longer hair and nails that nature doesn’t seem to allow them. Most of these products do not work. We can’t get our hair and nails to grow much longer when we are alive, and we’re supposed to think it happens after we are dead?
If this were true, every time a casket was disinterred and opened, it would be full of human hair. The toenails would be poking through the shoes until they broke off or bent the ankles. It never happens.
Rather, after a body has been dead for several days, even embalmed, the skin will start to dehydrate. Most embalming fluids have an extremely drying effect, and dehydration is a natural process. It can easily be seen in the mouth and the corners of the eyes. The tissues will shrink and turn dark. On the nail beds, the tissue shrinking away from the hard surfaces gives the appearance of slightly longer nails. That’s all.
Hair length is genetic. If you literally never have a haircut from the moment you are born, most likely your hair will not be down to the ground. I have seen some women with very long, healthy hair to their feet, but this is not typical. Most people simply cannot grow their hair that long, even if they want to. Likewise, if you do not shave your legs or armpits, the hair will not continue to grow until it engulfs you. It has a natural set point, much like the hair on your head.
People who starve themselves tend to have very brittle nails and suffer from hair loss. The dead are not eating. Why in the world would someone assume that a dead person retains some natural bodily process of nurturing the new growth of keratin?
Formaldehyde is a fixative. I pay close attention to seemingly minor details like eyelashes, because eyelashes that are not clean and separated can give the appearance of the eyelid being forcibly pulled down and glued, and we don’t want that look on a face. We don’t want people looking at the eyes and wondering how we keep them closed. We want people to look at the face and have no idea that we even did anything to the eyes. So, before I start embalming, I make sure the eyelids and lashes are in a natural-looking position, because once the head is embalmed, the little hairs on the face are not going to move.
Nothing continues after death except for the body’s inevitable decomposition.