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death, cessation of all life (metabolic) processes. Death may involve the organism as a whole (somatic death) or may be confined to cells and tissues within the organism. Causes of death in human beings include injury, acute or chronic disease, and neoplasia (cancer). The physiological death of cells that are normally replaced throughout life is called necrobiosis; the death of cells caused by external changes, such as an abnormal lack of blood supply, is called necrosis.

Somatic death is characterized by the discontinuance of cardiac activity and respiration, and eventually leads to the death of all body cells from lack of oxygen, although for approximately six minutes after somatic death—a period referred to as clinical death—a person whose vital organs have not been damaged may be revived. However, achievements of modern biomedical technology have enabled the physician to artificially maintain critical functions for indefinite periods.

Somatic death is followed by a number of irreversible changes that are of legal importance, especially in estimating the time of death. These include rigor mortis, livor mortis (discoloration of the body due to settling of blood), algor mortis (cooling of the body), autolysis (breakdown of tissue by enzymes liberated by that tissue after death), and putrefaction (invasion of the body by organisms from the gastrointestinal tract).

Brain death, which is now a legal condition in most states for declared death, requires that the following be absent for at least 12 hours: behavioral or reflex motor functions above the neck, including pupillary reflexes to testing jaw reflex, gag reflex, response to noxious stimuli, and any spontaneous respiratory movement. Purely spinal reflexes can remain. If the patient has agreed to be an organ donor, the observation period can be shortened to 6 hours.

As a result of recent refinements in organ transplantation (see transplantation, medical) techniques, the need has arisen to more precisely define medical death. The current definition is that of a 1981 U.S. presidential commission, which recommended that death be defined as “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem,” the brain stem being that part of the brain that controls breathing and other basic body functions. Some feel, however, that people in persistent vegetative states, i.e., people who have brain-stem function but have lost higher brain functions (vision, abstract thought, personality), should be considered dead and allowed, through living wills or relatives, to donate organs.

See euthanasia; funeral customs; vital statistics.


See E. Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969); S. B. Nuland, How We Die (1994).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the cessation of the vital functions of an organism and the ensuing end of its life as an individual. Death is accompanied by the decomposition of proteins and other biopolymers, which are the principal material substrate of life. Modern views of dialectic materialism on the subject of death are based on the following idea expressed by F. Engels: “One can no longer consider scientific a physiology that does not regard death as an essential aspect of life … or realize that the negation of life is an essential component of life: life must always be viewed in relation to its inevitable and immanent property—death” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 610).

Sometimes the concept of partial death is proposed, that is, the death of a group of cells or of an organ or part of an organ. In unicellular organisms, or protozoa, the natural death of an individual is manifested by division; when the individual ceases its existence, two new individuals come into being to take its place. In the case of other organisms, death marks the definitive conclusion of the organism’s life, usually leading to the formation of a corpse.

In higher animals and man, death is termed natural or physiological when it results from prolonged, gradual extinction of the organism’s main vital functions. Premature, or pathological, death results from disease or from lesions of such vital organs as the brain, heart, lungs, and liver. Premature death may be sudden; it may occur within a few minutes or even seconds, as in myocardial infarction. Violent death may be caused by an accident, suicide, or murder.

The death of warm-blooded animals and man is caused mainly by the cessation of respiration and blood circulation. The two main stages of death are, successively, clinical death and biological or true death. Complete restoration of vital functions is possible during clinical death, but biological death involves an irreversible cessation of physiological processes in the cells and tissues. The discipline of thanatology studies the processes associated with death.


Metchnikoff, E. Etiudy optimizma, 4th ed. Moscow, 1917.
Shmal’gauzen, I. I. Problema smerti i bessmertiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.
Il’in, N. A. Sovremennaia nauka o zhizni i smerti. Kishinev, 1955.
Lunts, A. M. “Ob evoliutsii smerti v sviazi s evoliutsiei razmnozheniia.” Zhurnal obshchei biologii, 1961, vol. 22, no. 2.
Policard, A., and M. Bessis. Elementy patologii kletki. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from French.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Cessation of all life functions; can involve the whole organism, an organ, individual cells, or cell parts.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Ah Puch
deity of doom; represented as bloated corpse or skeleton. [Maya Myth.: Leach, 30]
gaunt driver of spectral cart; collects the dead. [Brittany Folklore: Leach, 62]
god and guardian of the dead. [Ancient Egyptian Rel.: Parrinder, 10]
Arrow of Azrael
angel of death’s way of summoning dead. [Islamic Myth.: Jobes, 129]
As I Lay Dying
Bundren family ordeal after Addie’s death. [Am. Lit.: Faulkner As I Lay Dying]
asphodel flower
bloom growing in Hades. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 37]
Fate who cuts thread of life. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Hall, 302]
angel of death; separates the soul from the body. [Islamic Myth.: Walsh Classical, 41]
female specter, harbinger of death. [Irish and Welsh Myth.: Walsh Classical, 45]
passing bell; rung to indicate demise. [Christian Tradition: Jobes, 198]
Western color for mourning. [Christian Color Symbolism: Leach, 242; Jobes, 357]
Bodach Glas
gray specter; equivalent to Irish banshee. [Scot. Myth.: Walsh Classical, 45]
god whose cauldron restored dead to life. [Welsh Myth.: Jobes, 241]
Bury the Dead
six dead soldiers cause a rebellion when they refuse to be buried. [Am. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 768]
(Golgotha) where Christ was crucified. [N.T.: Luke 23:33]
goddess of violent death. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 75]
god of death. [Etruscan Myth.: Jobes, 315]
Conqueror Worm
the worm ultimately vanquishes man in grave. [Am. Lit.: “Ligeia” in Tales of Terror]
Dance of Death
Holbein woodcut, one of many medieval examples of the death motif. [Eur. Culture: Bishop, 363-367]
danse macabre
Dance of Death; procession of all on their way to the grave. [Art: Osborne, 299–300, 677]
dust and ashes
“I am become like dust and ashes.” [O.T.: Job 30:19]
blind and chair-bound, Hamm learns that nearly everybody has died; his own parents are dying in separate trash cans. [Anglo-Fr. Drama: Beckett Endgame in Weiss, 143]
goddess of death; consort of Nergal. [Sumerian and Akkadian Myth.: Parrinder, 93]
extreme unction
Roman Catholic sacrament given to a person in danger of dying. [Christianity: RHD, 506]
Gibbs, Emily
dying in childbirth, welcomed by the other spirits in the graveyard, she tries to relive her twelfth birthday. [Am. Drama: Thornton Wilder Our Town in Benét, 747]
Grim Reaper
name given to personification of death. [Pop. Culture: Misc.]
handful of earth
symbol of mortality. [Folklore: Jobes, 486]
symbol of agents of destruction. [Christian Tradition: N.T.: Revelation 6; Mercatante, 65]
Ilyitch, Ivan
afflicted with cancer, he becomes irritable, visits many doctors, gradually disintegrates, and dies almost friendless. [Russ. Lit.: Tolstoy The Death of Ivan Ilyitch in Magill III, 256]
Hindu goddess to whom Thug sacrificed victims. [Hinduism: Brewer Dictionary, 600]
rag dealer dies spectacularly and horribly of “spontaneous combustion.” [Br. Lit.: Dickens Bleak House]
“saintly soul floats on the Stygian river.” [Am. Lit.: “Lenore” in Hart, 468]
Lord of the Flies
showing man’s consciousness and fear of dying. [Br. Lit.: Lord of the Flies]
spirits of the dead. [Rom. Rel.: Leach, 672]
ancient Roman goddess of the dead. [Rom. Myth.: Zimmerman, 159]
dark, cold region to which were sent those who died of disease or old age. [Scand. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary 642]
identified with mortality. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 163]
On Borrowed Time
an old man chases “Death” up a tree and keeps him there until the old man is ready to die. [Am. Drama: Sobel, 517]
pale horse
fourth horse of Apocolypse, ridden by Death personified. [N.T.: Revelation 7:7–8]
Pardoner’s Tale, The
seeking to slay death, three rioters are told he is under a certain tree; there they find gold and kill each other over it. [Br. Lit.: Chaucer “The Pardoner’s Tale” in Canterbury Tales]
religious mass (music or spoken) for the dead. [Christianity: Payton, 568]
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The”
when Death wins the toss of the dice, the two hundred crew members drop dead. [Br. Poetry: Coleridge “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”]
Sacco Benedetto
yellow robe worn going to the stake during Inquisition. [Span. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 948]
carried by the personification of death, used to cut life short. [Art.: Hall, 276]
visual representation of death. [Western Folklore: Cirlot, 298]
representation of body’s dissolution. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 92]
skull and crossbones
symbolizing mortality; sign on poison bottles. [World Culture: Brewer Dictionary, 1009]
river which must be crossed to enter Hades. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 259]
(Mors) god of death; brother of Somnos (sleep). [Gk. Myth.: Gayley, 54]
record-keeper of the dead. [Egyptian Myth.: Leach, 1109]
Valdemar, M.
in hypnotic trance, recounts impressions from other side of death. [Am. Lit.: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” in Portable Poe, 268–280]
Eucharist given to one who is dying. [Christianity: Brewer Dictionary, 1128]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Dreaming about death is very common and it can be interpreted in many different ways. Death is usually a symbol of some type of closure or end. It implies an end to one thing and a beginning of another. Death dreams usually have positive symbolism. If you are the dead person in your dream, it could imply that you would like to leave all of your worries and struggles behind and begin anew. Dreaming about someone that you care about may express your fear about losing him or her. Dreaming that one of your parents died may express fear of loss, but it also may be an unconscious valve through which you release anger and other negative feelings. In some cultures dreaming about death and dying is a very good omen that represents longevity and prosperity.
Bedside Dream Dictionary by Silvana Amar Copyright © 2007 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.