When Is a Person Actually Dead?

A student recently sent me an article from Live Science that reports on a man who was declared dead by three doctors. Four hours later, as he was being prepped for an autopsy (the marks to guide the autopsy had already been put on him), he started snoring! As of the time the article was written, he was alive and in the intensive care unit of a hospital. The student asked how such a thing could happen. Was it incompetence on the part of the doctors, or is it difficult to tell whether or not a person is dead? I told the student that while I couldn’t address the details of this particular case since I wasn’t involved, I could tell him that there have been cases over the years where the experts were convinced that a person was dead when, in fact, that person wasn’t.

I first heard this kind of story when I was preparing for a talk about miracles. I ran across the case of Emma Brady. She had been declared dead after exhibiting no vital signs. She was placed in a body bag and taken to the morgue. When her children arrived about an hour later to say their goodbyes, they found her gasping for air. The administrator of the hospital said that after the family told a nurse about what they had seen:

Miraculously, the patient exhibited vital signs that were absent previously.

Over the years, I have kept my eye out for stories like this, and while they are rare, they are most certainly not unheard of.

Consider, for example, the story of Steven Thorpe. At age 17, he was in a tragic accident that killed one of the other occupants of the automobile. He was put in a medically-induced coma, and a team of four physicians told his parents that he was brain dead. They suggested that his organs be donated to help others. However, the parents brought in an additional doctor (a neurologist), who demonstrated faint brain activity. The doctors at the hospital agreed to bring him out of the medically-induced coma, and Thorpe recovered. He left the hospital five days later and at the time the article was published, he was alive and well.

Once again, while these stories seem rare, they are not unheard of. In 2008, Zack Dunlap was in an automobile accident and was declared dead 36 hours later. However, he wasn’t dead. In fact, he says that he actually heard his doctors saying that he was dead. The hospital made plans to harvest his organs, since his driver’s license said that he was an organ donor. However, as his family was saying goodbye, one of his cousins (a nurse) decided to pull out his pocket knife, hold Zack’s foot, and scrape the knife against it. Zack pulled his own foot out of his cousin’s hand. The family took it as a sign of life, and they argued that the hospital should treat Zack as if he were alive. He ended up making a full recovery.

The bottom line is that while we have amazing technology and a lot of knowledge about human anatomy and physiology, there are limits to what we can detect and what we can conclude. While it is sometimes very obvious that someone is dead, there are other times when even the experts can be fooled. That’s something all of us need to keep in mind when we deal with life and death issues.

14 thoughts on “When Is a Person Actually Dead?”

  1. Sadly, this is why I have yet to become an organ donor. I have definitely experienced doctors / medical establishments who are a little too desensitized and overeager to declare no hope.

    On a side note, I once heard Tom Waits tell a story on late night TV where he explains the origin of the term “dead ringer”. Apparently, he says, when exhuming corpses they found a coffin which exhibited scratch marks on the inside. This prompted them to invent the “safety coffin” – a system of tying strings to people’s hands and then burying them with the other end of the string attached to a bell on top of their grave. If the undertaker heard bells ringing in the cemetery they would quickly pump air into the casket and begin exhuming.

    In researching it I found that the attachment of this idea to the terms “dead ringer, saved by the bell, and graveyard shift” are inventions… But the safety coffin did in fact exist!

    Here’s a fascinating list of earlier death tests


    1. OMG, smoke enema! Just let me rest in peace already!!

      Personally, though, I don’t mind being an organ-donor, even if the doctors do kill me off too quickly, because someone else’s life could be saved. At least I know where I’m going when I die.

  2. I’ve wondered about our definition of ‘death’ in a medical setting. Breathing, heart beat, brain waves, if these stop a person is considered dead, but with the abilities to ‘start up’ someone again with drugs or procedures, it can be confusing whether a person is dead or not. It is interesting to think on what a death actually is.



    I read a really good article sometime back, but can’t find it. These talk about some of what it covered.

    Do you have any thoughts on that?

    1. I think that materialism has blinded medical science to the fact that human life is more than just physical. There is a spiritual dimension to human life, and the spiritual dimension interacts with the physical dimension. As a result, the lack of physical signs of life does not mean there is no life. To me, the end of life is properly defined as when the soul leaves the body. However, there is no way to objectively measure that, so we tend to rely on physical signs of life, since they can be measured objectively. However, if we want to fully respect life, we have to recognize that our definition of death is not always correct. As a result, we should be cautious when it comes to pronouncing that someone is dead.

      1. Huh…what you said is interesting regarding the definition of death as being when the soul leaves the body.

        Do you think a soul can move on whilst the body is physically alive? (I’ve read the stories of people whose souls were sent back to their body because God said they weren’t ready yet, but I’m wondering if someone could actually enter heaven whilst their physical body remains alive in respirator / life support situation)

        If a soul can leave a body while it is alive, I’m curious as to how long a souless body can be kept alive after the soul departs. This is somewhat graphic but I’ve had nurses tell me of cases where some patients on life support start to decompose even though they show vital signs whereas some bodies can remain in coma for years with no deterioration. I wonder if this is strictly due to condition of the organs or if it has anything to do with the condition of the soul.

        1. Of course, I have no scientific knowledge to back this up, but it seems to me that just as the soul is connected to the body, the body is connected to the soul. The difference, of course, is that the soul is spiritual and immortal, while the body is material and moral. So…I would think that if you could keep respiration and blood flow going, the body could be kept materially alive for a long, long time. The soul is always alive, so I would think that if the soul came back to the body, the person would be alive again, even if the body had been on “life support” for many years.

  3. My father, a former atheist, died twice. He was a changed man after the 1st time, but slipped back into his old life. 2nd time, twenty minutes, no vital signs. yes, I was praying hard! He came out and they almost wrecked the ambulance. After that, he would bust me if I started to backslide. He told us, do not pray for me to stay alive, here, but to live in Him, and go home in love. When he passed away the last time, he was smiling. My stepfather died in the hospital while I was there, reading the Psalms. His signs started again and the nurses were cheering, but he looked at me and scowled. “Don’t do that again.” I didn’t, and we’ll meet at the Gates some day. As for me, if I’m gone, let me go. As God wills, so am I. Let others get a little something just as I have to continue a while longer in His love, here, with you. Peace be on you now and unto eternity.

  4. These false deaths could in no way explain the death and resurrection of Christ. If he had faked death by hanging limply on the cross that alone would have caused him to suffocate due to the pressure on his chest. But just to be sure the Roman soldiers speared him.

    We can be sure He rose from the dead because we can be sure He died.

    1. Yes, that’s why the Roman soldiers broke the other two crucified criminals’ legs so they would die quicker, because they needed to push off of them in order to breathe (in order to exhale, I believe)

    2. We can be extra sure because God was wise enough to wait three days for the resurrection. Enough time for the earthly body to begin to decay.

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