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Myths about Death Investigation

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

Death in itself has so many myths surrounding it that it is hard sometimes to distinguish between fact and fiction. It also does not help when we have television shows that tell you, for example, the exact time of death. I remember watching an episode of Law and Order-Special Victims Unit in which Dr. Melinda Warner (played by Tamara Tunie) was examining a murdered female and she examines her eyes and tells detectives she had been dead for a certain amount of time due to the lack of electrolytes, or something to that effect. Well, first of all you cannot see electrolytes with the naked eye. Secondly, vitreous is found inside of the eye, behind the lens of the eye. Therefore it still cannot be seen with the naked eye. Unfortunately, these shows make the general public believe this can truly be done.

Time of death is something many people want to know, but unfortunately it is just a scientific guess. There is only one way to determine the exact time of death and that is when the person is attached to a heart monitor and one can see the last heartbeat. This primarily takes place inside of a hospital or an ambulance where the patient (soon to be deceased) has several ECG/EKG electrodes in place. This is how you can definitely tell when someone has died. There is written proof of the death through an EKG strip, but even then time of death is not declared as a legal time until a physician or a coroner has made the pronouncement official.

Many times families have wondered why the death certificate of their loved one indicates a different time from the last breath taken. This is especially noted on cases where the family is at the bedside and witnesses the person’s last breath. The reason is the physician had to declare the death. Another example is when a person has been found several weeks after their last breath. Their death certificate will provide a time of pronouncement of death which will be different from date of death. Date of death would be, for example three weeks ago but the pronouncement would be when the decedent was found. I have only had once case in which a person was found deceased several weeks later, but the individual had recorded their death and in that device the time stamp was on which allowed us to determine exact time of death.

There are other beliefs that the body weighs less after death, because the spirit has left the body. Duncan McDougall tried to prove the body did weigh less after the soul of a recently deceased individual had departed, but his experiments could never be validated. In all, the time of death could not be measured by weight.

Time of death is a calculated science and unless the individual is in a hospital setting, time of death will be an educated guess. Death is evident when all physiological activity as ceased and the death is pronounced by those empowered with the right to do so.

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