Society - People
By: - at November 5, 2013

Top 15 Myths about Death

Death is still a mystery in many ways. People wonder what happens after crossing over and invent things about death that either comfort or scare them, or turn to religion for comfort. It’s largely unknown exactly what happens within someone’s mind as they die, since researches can’t ask dead people for a scientific account of their final experience. What happens after someone dies, whether someone's hair continues to grow or harvesting their organs, is something people are often unclear about. Until someone is faced with learning that they’re dying or that a loved one doesn’t have long to live, they don’t know how to proceed with the situation or what the best care options are. For many people, the most difficult form of death is a sudden death, the idea that a loved one can be taken away from them in an instant.

death, crossing over

It’s only natural to want to say goodbye, just as it’s natural to want comfort and peace while crossing over into the realm of eternal darkness.

Myth 15)  Your Nails and Hair Keep Growing After You Die
It’s a common myth that after you die, your hair and nails continue to grow. A modern reason behind this belief may be because hair and nails are understood to be made out of "dead" cells. This myth is passed on from person to person, labeled as fact from common misunderstood information about what happens to the body postmortem.

Anatomy of the Nail: A. Nail Plate; B. lunula; C. root; D. sinus; E. Matrix; F. nail bed; G. eponychium; H. free margin
Anatomy of the Nail: A. Nail Plate; B. lunula; C. root; D. sinus; E. Matrix; F. nail bed; G. eponychium; H. free margin
By KDS444 via Wikimedia Commons

After death, the body slowly dehydrates. This dehydration causes hair and nails to appear to grow longer because as tissues dehydrate, they shrink and pull back. This makes finger nails longer relative to the fingertips and exposing hair previously covered by the skin of the scalp.

Myth 14)  Cremation Is Eco-friendly
It’s commonly believed that cremation is an environmentally friendly means of disposing of a cadaver. Cremation involves the complete incineration of a dead body. It may be done as part of the funeral, including burning the body on a pyre, or may be performed after a funeral. In many countries, cremation is usually performed in a crematorium within a crematory that contains furnaces called cremators. These furnaces run as high as 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. A body may or may not be placed in a container, such as a box or casket, before being placed within the cremator chamber.

Cremation Within a Cremator
Cremation Within a Cremator
By Henry Mühlpfordt via Wikimedia Commons

Cremation is not, in fact, environmentally friendly. It releases toxic emissions that can cause local environmental problems including the release of mercury or other hard metals that can be contained in the corpse. Within some jurisdictions it is required that abatement filters be installed to help decrease the release of other serious pollutants into the atmosphere. These filters cannot stop the release of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming. If the body has been embalmed, it also releases the embalming fluid’s constituent chemicals that after the procedure, become heat-altered and in some cases more harmful. Depending on the cremator it may use oil or natural gas for fuel, and both of these chemicals are unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly due to being fossil fuel-based. Propane is derived from natural gas or petroleum and coal gas, which is created from the destructive distillation of coal, are two other accelerants used in cremations.

Myth 13)  Dying is Always Painful
People often believe that dying is by default, painful. Whether the death is caused by a long-term illness, an accident, a sudden heart attack or stroke or some other method of dying, people strongly believe death is always a painful event. Even people who are with family members or friends when they die and witness the act, believe this to be true.

distress and death pain

While it’s true that many deaths, like those sustained in car accidents or by drowning can be extremely painful, it’s by no means always the case. In countries with ready access to painkillers, even those dying of cancer or an infection can be relieved of their terminal pain. According to Tani Bahti, a nurse who responded to myths such as that dying is always painful in an article on says: “Pain is not an expected part of the dying process.” The Hospice Foundation of America agrees with her. It says that many people die without experiencing any pain at all. Both agree that, if a dying person does have pain from their condition, it can be treated with a range of prescribed medications. The HFA also says that, if medications alone are not enough to stop pain, a combination of approaches may be used.

Myth 12)  If You’re an Organ Donor, Doctors Won’t Try to Save You
Organ donors are usually those who agree that, after their death, their organs may be used and transplanted into people whose organs are failing, have severe tissue damage, or have gone blind due to corneal injuries. In some cases, the family of a dying or recently deceased person agrees that their loved one’s body may be harvested for transplantation purposes. One organ donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and tissues can be used to treat many more. Because organ donors’ bodies can be used to treat so many people, there’s a common misconception that doctors won’t try as hard to save donors.

organ donation

Organ donation is only considered until every effort has been exhausted in attempt to save the patient’s life including maintaining life via ventilators and other mechanical devices, and harvesting is only conducted after a patient is deceased. Once all options have been exhausted a neurologist or neurosurgeon will conduct a series of brain wave activity tests, usually multiple times, to determine if the patient has any brain function. The team who attempts to save the patient’s life is a completely different group of medical professionals than the team that harvests organs and tissue, so there is absolutely no issue of a conflict of interest present.

Myth 11)  People Always See a White Light or Tunnel When They’re Dying
We’ve all heard of someone who says they’ve had a near-death experience claim they saw a white light, a tunnel, or both. This light is sometimes described as warm or welcoming. The people who claim to have had these experiences often say it was beckoning to them, or calling to them. Usually, they say they felt safe or serene and oddly comforted by the vision. Sometimes the people describing these experiences were actually nowhere near their death. Other times, they have indeed had their heart stop or have otherwise experienced something that would have been fatal without medical intervention.

the light at the end of the tunnel

In a Dutch study researchers interviewed 344 mostly elderly hospital patients whose hearts had stopped, meaning they nearly died and the blood flow to their brains was cut off. Just eighteen percent of them experienced a white light, tunnel, or anything similar.

walking towards the light

Taking this study as a benchmarking tool, less than a quarter of these patients experiencing a white light or tunnel means that trying to state a white light or tunnel as a standard death-related occurrence, is just short-sighted reasoning. 

Myth 10)  People Die as They Have Lived
Conventional wisdom alludes that people will often die similarly to the manner in which they lived their life. If someone is passive then they won’t fight death. If they have a combative personality, then they will most likely struggle with crossing over. Beyond simply reasoning, this belief gains some traction as some medical professionals also hold it to be true. In an article on, a nurse case manager for the organization states, “People think that dying alone is terrible. I always tell them, some people, especially introverted people, want to be alone. A mother may want to spare her children, one last time. People die as they have lived.”

man dying

However, the Hospice Foundation of America disagrees. They claim that that while this type of reasoning is generally true, many people change as they get closer and closer to their death. This is especially true if they have received good care during a terminal illness or had other positive experiences close to the end of their life. An article in the New York Times goes further and says experts in the field of hospice care believe that the concept of death can transform and liberate patients. An AARP interview with a doctor who works in palliative care says the myth is half true in that people have a right to die as they have lived, but they frequently exhibit remarkable changes as they get closer and closer to their death; which is most certainly their right.

Myth 9)  Drowning is a Euphoric Way to Die
When a person is drowning they usually don’t flail around, make a lot of noise, or draw attention to themselves. People will argue that this means that it must be a pretty peaceful way to die. It seems that this myth was generated from someone distantly knowing about another person who was extremely close to drowning, and hearing that they claimed it was an almost euphoric sensation. The telephone game is to blame for this myth even registering on this list.


The truth is that until the victim loses consciousness, drowning is a terrifying experience as the victim can do nothing to save their own life. The reason drowning people don’t flail or cry out as they drown is due to an instinctive drowning response. It “represents a person's attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water,” and is automatic. They are physically unable to call for help because their mouths move above and below water too fast for breathing and speech, and any moment they do find themselves above water breathing takes precedent over any cries for help. They cannot wave for help because their brains force their arms to press down against the water. Their bodies stay upright as they die terrified, and most likely alone unless they were forcibly drowned by an assailant.

Myth 8)  You Can Die from Losing the Will to Live
People think there is a “will to live” within humans and without it as the reasoning goes, the person dies naturally. The myth says that people who are suffering from a terminal illness and “give up” fighting, will soon die. The movie The Happening works along this premise. In the movie, a substance given off by plants is carried by the wind and causes anyone exposed to the outdoor air, to automatically lose their will to live and do anything to take their own life. The writers based this premise as if there is a switch in people’s heads that controls their will to live that can be simply be shut off by some outside influence.

death, toe tag

Suicide is typically the final result of someone losing their will to live. There are also circumstances where terminally ill people wish to die simply because they are sick of suffering. It’s one of two circumstances in which the loss of a “will to live” is accurate. The other is when a person carries out a mass murder that will almost certainly end in death, in this case suicide by police. A study conducted from the mid-1960s until 2000 found that pessimism increased the risk of early death, but pessimism isn’t the same as losing the “will to live”.

Myth 7)  Don’t Cry in Front of the Dying
People often believe that they should only be positive and show love in front of a dying loved one. They feel they should always be upbeat unless their dying family member or friend initiates a serious conversation. If a conversation encompassing life and death issues occurs, it is believed that they should “stay strong” and not cry, though they may admit they’ll miss the dying person or are sad that they’re dying. The belief is that crying in front of the dying person is selfish and will make them feel guilty, as though they have no right to be dying or they should be able to stop it from occurring.

crying over someone dying

An article on that was written by a hospice nurse disagrees with the myth that you shouldn’t cry in front of the dying. She says, “They know you're sad. Having the courage to bare your emotions gives the dying person permission to be candid about his or her feelings. Your tears are evidence of your love. And they can also be a relief to the person, telegraphing that you understand what's happening.” In other words, if you want them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, express yourself in a manner that is accurate of your true emotions.

Myth 6)  Keep Children Away from the Dying Person
Parents are often advised to keep their children away from people who are dying, including close friends and family members. Parents have even been encouraged to keep children from getting too close to understanding that a family pet has passed away. This has led parents to tell stories like, “we took Spot to a farm where he will be happy forever, a farm with big fields and rabbits he can chase.” However, parents can’t lie about what happened to Grandpa forever. Even though parents will eventually have to explain to their children that a loved one has died, they’re told that it’s unhealthy and emotionally damaging for a child to be exposed to death right away. This reasoning holds true even when the child will ultimately see the loved one in a casket at the funeral.

child holding a folded american flag

Rather than telling children their loved one is dying or has died, it’s often better for them to see what’s happening with their own eyes. Children have vivid imaginations, and if they don't see for themselves what happened to their deceased family member, they’ll often conjure up gruesome or terrifying images of what happened to the person. Letting children visit a dying relative is not only better for the child's psyche, but that it also allows the dying person the company of the young people in their lives during an extremely emotionally trying situation.

Myth 5)  Sudden Death Causes Survivors Greater Grief Than Expected Death
Many people fear that their loved ones will die with little or no warning. They worry that losing the people they love unexpectedly will be emotionally more difficult to process and take longer to adjust to. People worry that their grief will be worse, less bearable or stronger and have much more damaging effects on their quality of life. This idea is reinforced by entertainment, whether in books, movies, or television shows. Entertainment aside, sudden death that is especially violent or traumatic for the survivor, makes coping for surviving loved ones a very difficult task.


Grief is not greater in sudden death that in foreseeable death. However, the ability to cope for survivors is decreased when a death is unexpected. This may be the case because people who do get to say goodbye often start grieving before their loved one dies and already begin to process it. Besides the usual grieving process, survivors will feel stunned and shocked by the fact that their loved one died so suddenly. The results for survivors can be extremely overwhelming and cause severely damaging alterations to their psychological well-being. A Seton Healthcare article says that sudden deaths often don’t make sense to survivors. The grief process is also different, since the death is harder to accept, and people’s immediate reaction to the death is more intense often involving heavy denial issues.

Myth 4)  Hospice is an Institution
Hospice involves palliative care for people who are terminally or seriously ill. This means its focus is on preventing and relieving the suffering of patients. Because it’s for people who are seriously or terminally ill, people who know little about hospice care frequently believe that it only takes place in a hospital or other institutional setting so it can be easily overseen by doctors and other healthcare providers.

hospice care

This is simply not the case. While hospice care can be performed in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions, it’s most often performed at home. United States hospice care was an industry raking in over $2.8 billion in 1995, and $1.9 billion of that went to the 1,857 providers Medicare-funded patients used. Out of this gigantic industry, 72 percent of all hospice providers were non-profit organizations, most of which were proprietary and not part of a corporation, hospital, nursing home, or skilled nursing facility. As of 2008, more than a third of all dying Americans, from children to seniors used hospice services within the comfort of their own homes. It allows patients to die in a familiar setting without any pain or needless suffering associated with being confined to a strange place.

Myth 3)  People Choose to Have Assistance Suicide Because They’re Depressed
The major myth about assisted suicide, assisted death, or euthanasia, is that people who are depressed and mentally ill will take advantage of it by the thousands. The reasoning goes that it’s a sure way to die without any foul-ups like waking up after a suicide attempt, which is a real risk associated with nearly any method of suicide attempted at home. Also, the depressed person isn’t alone when they choose to die.

assisted suicide

That, however, is a complete misrepresentation of legal assisted suicide. In the U.S. states where assisted suicide is legal, multiple meetings with a physician are required before it can be performed. The physician may only prescribe a pharmaceutical overdose to patients who are terminally ill, typically with less than six months to live. They must also conduct a mental health assessment to determine the patient’s competence to decide if their desire to die is made in sound mind. A patient may be depressed due to their terminal illness, but are only eligible for assisted suicide based on the factors associated with their illness, not their emotional state because of a terminal illness. The patient’s physician may then prescribe a lethal overdose of medication once all factors have been examined.

Myth 2)  Good End-of-life Care is Expensive
When people think of end-of-life care, they typically think of a hospital room where the dying person is in a hospital bed, machines beeping, tubes and wires attached to the patient, maybe even with a ventilator keeping the patient alive. They imagine the cost of all that, which insurance may not even cover, and it easily adds up to tens of thousands of dollars very quickly in their minds. They want the best possible end-of-life care for their loved ones even when they estimate the exuberant costs, and they almost always expect it in addition to being costly to only being in a typically institutional setting.

nursing home care

The best end-of-life care typically does not take place in an institution, such as a nursing home, skilled nursing facility, or hospital. Ideally, end-of-life care has palliative care that provides relief from suffering and pain, and counsels the patient towards the end. Additional services if requested, include spiritual or religious support, comforting the grieving loved ones, and providing the patient with the best quality of life possible in their dire situation. That’s what hospice, not health care institutions like hospitals, provides. Medicare covers most of the cost, as do insurance plans, HMOs, and managed care plans. Better still, the majority of hospices are non-profit and can be mostly low-cost or even sometimes free, ideally leaving grieving families without any serious medical bills or serious debt related to their family member passing away.

Myth 1)  Everyone Dies in a Hospital
The vast majority of people believe that nearly everyone, whether their deaths are sudden or expected and regardless of the cause, ultimately dies in a hospital. They expect dying people to be attended by nurses in scrub uniforms and doctors in lab coats, with their heart rates, brain waves, and anything else they can imagine measured constantly. They think dying people are all hooked up to IVs that administer medication around the clock.

dying in a hospital

That is not actually the case. Patients die every day with all the care they need wherever home may be, all thanks to hospice. A patient’s home might be a private home, a nursing home, an assisted living facility, or even a hospice residence. That avoids all the discomfort typically associated with a hospital, with its strange noises and disease-filled cold rooms. Hospice is less stressful for the patient and even for their loved ones.


Final Words
Myths have always surrounded death. In ancient times, death was viewed as an inevitability, not something that could be delayed. Even so, ancient people had myths and fantastic beliefs about what happened to their loved ones when they left this plane of existence. Whether it was that the dead person’s spirit was taken away by a god, that people could journey into the realm of the dead and return with their loved one, or that silver must be placed with the dead to pay to ferry them to the underworld. Even in today's modern society, myths about death still abound. More often, though, these myths are about what happens as a person is dying, the care they’re given while dying, and the treatment they receive during and after their death. Knowing what is true and what is blatantly false about death and the care provided for the dying, will hopefully dispel any strange and gruesome rumors about what really happens when someone passes away.





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