Most people don't like to think about death. But when you get down to it, you've likely heard a bunch of old wives' tales about what happens when you die. And while the inclination may be to believe that none of them are true, it turns out some are rooted in fact.
Our bodies can do some bizarre things after — or while — we die. There are parts of our body that survive in the first period of time after death, and all sorts of other creepy things that can happen in the minutes to years after your heart stops.
Old wives' tales, then, are often superstitious interpretations of very real things. While people may now realize that there isn't scientific evidence supporting the need to carry a body out of a building feet first, stop a clock in the room where someone died, or cover mirrors, there are some superstitions that carry some meaning.
Bodies shut down bit-by-bit, and post-death consciousness is only now being thoroughly researched, so what to some seemed like possession or signs of paranormal activity is now beginning to get medical explanations. Still, to some, these scientific experiments only validate their existing beliefs. Whatever you believe about death, it can be interesting to understand how old-time superstition relates to modern understanding of what happens when your life ends.
Here are 11 creepy old wives' tales about death that may actually be true.
1. Your Hair And Nails Grow
While it is technically just an old wives' tale that your hair and nails grow after you die, there is some substance to this myth. In reality, corpses do have the appearance of their hair and nails growing after they die.
"The skin on a dead man’s chin ... dries out," Claudia Hammond writes for BBC. "As it does so it pulls back towards the skull, making stubble appear more prominent. Goosebumps caused by the contraction of the hair muscles can add to the effect." So while old-timey people may have believed they were seeing dead people continue to sprout creepy beards, really they were just observing natural processes of death.
2. You Can Be Conscious After Death
Old wives' tales suggest a spooky reality where corpses are conscious and spirits are everywhere. All sorts of superstitions arise around keeping the recently-dead from haunting those around them or coming back to life. But the idea that a corpse may be quasi-conscious isn't actually that far from reality.
Neuroscientists have found a surge in brain activity right after death, and an almost innumerable amount of near-death-experience survivors can recount moments of clarity and consciousness even after their hearts had stopped. While the significance of this scientific reality is open for interpretation, old wives' tales about conscious dead bodies may actually be rooted in something real.
3. Corpses Can Move
While old wives' tales about corpses having the potential to come back to life may not be completely grounded in science, there is reality in the fact that bodies can move after death.
"After someone dies, muscle may still twitch or move," psychic and spiritual counselor Davida Rappaport tells Bustle. "Even after the brain ceases to function, it may take a while for the nervous system to catch up, so people may see muscle twitches or movements — but that does not mean the person is alive." So if you've heard about ways to keep a body from "coming back to life" you may really be dealing with old wives' tales to prevent the movements of rigor mortis.
4. Severed Heads Can "Live"
While some old wives' tales are outlandish, specific tales about severed heads reacting to the world around them are eerily close to accurate.
As creepy as it sounds, a beheaded body may be able to remain conscious for a bit after the deadly incident occurs. Although they likely are just experiencing muscle contractions that make them appear to be making facial expressions, a 2011 Dutch study found that decapitated mice have a period of brain activity for nearly four seconds after they were injured. Being like a "chicken with its head cut off" is a famously accurate example. Miracle Mike, who lived 18 months without a head, is the most famous case.
5. Your Corpse Can Turn To Soap
If you've ever heard the tale about a man's body turning to soap, it's not completely false.
Turns out, when a corpse is exposed to a particular kind of bacteria, a gruesome process called saponification can occur. The two most famous examples, Soap Man and Soap Woman (warning: these links contains graphic images), had their body fat turned to soap when water seeped into their caskets — turning the fat to adipocere (corpse wax). This is one of the more horrifyingly accurate old wives' tales, but it's pretty interesting from a scientific standpoint.
6. Corpses Can Moan
One absolutely terrifying old wives' tale about death is that corpses can make sounds. For both a moaning sound and a near-death "death rattle," this is actually true.
"It is believed that when someone is about to die that they emit what is called a death rattle — a soft moaning or gurgling sound just before they die," Rappaport says. "This sound usually happens shortly before death and is caused by saliva accumulation in the throat because the person is unable to swallow." Again, this seemingly-haunting experience is simply a medical reality at the end of life.
7. Animals Can Predict Death
All sorts of old wives' tales involve animals as omens of death. The idea of animals having a sixth sense for these things may stay in the realm of superstition, but there is some legitimacy behind these tales.
"It is believed that animals know when another animal or their owner is about to die," Rappaport says. Whether it is their sense of smell or instinct, in some reported cases, some animals have seemingly predicted the death of their owners. One cat in particular, whose story was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, accurately predicted 25 deaths in one nursing home.
8. Bodies Can 'Give Birth'
"Coffin birth" is a scary term, but the reality is this old wives' tale is actually a sad medical reality.
Also known as postmortem fetal extrusion (warning: this link contains graphic images), "coffin birth" occurs when gases build up inside the body of a deceased pregnant woman, pushing the unborn fetus outside the birth canal. What may sound like a strange myth or urban legend has actually been discovered as recently as March 2018 in the grave of a medieval woman.
9. Deaths Come In Threes
Of course, the number of dead people on earth does not constantly round itself into multiples of three. But, your inclination to believe your grandma when she said "deaths come in threes" because you've noticed it happening your whole life is actually valid. Deaths do seem to come in threes; it's a self-fulfilling pattern once you begin looking out for it. And it's human nature to look for patterns.
"People believe that deaths come in threes," Rappaport says. "While this can be considered an old wives’ tale, it often plays out in the newspapers with celebrities dying in groups of threes [...] Since three is considered a mystical number [i.e. pyramids, Christian Holy Trinity] this tends to give this belief substance." Really, it is most likely a matter of your brain picking out specific data, like how you notice more "For Sale" signs when your own house is on the market.
10. Putting Coins On The Eyes Of The Dead
Putting coins on the eyes of the dead is a well-known old wives' tale, or superstition, that actually got enacted throughout history. And while this tradition may not necessarily have started because of its scientific explanation, it is rooted in some reality.
"The old wives' tale or superstition was that if you gazed upon the eyes of the dead, or that they gazed upon you, the dead will want to take you with them," Rappaport says. "So the tradition of putting coins on the eyes of the deceased were done from that point of view. In reality, the muscles of the eyelids cease to function so the task of putting coins on the eyes, serve as a way to keep the eyelids shut." So while the open eyes of a corpse probably won't do any haunting, it does make sense that people in old times, people put coins down to prevent from looking into the eyes of their dearly departed.
While most of these old wives' tales have slight amendments, rather than being entirely true, there's still a lot to learn about how humans have come to understand and cope with death. Bodies do strange things as they die, and right after, so trying to figure it out makes sense.