When does a human being die?

QJM. 2015 Aug;108(8):605-9. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcu239. Epub 2014 Nov 28.


For most of human history there has been no particular importance of establishing the exact time of a person's death, only whether the person is alive or dead. With modern medical advances, however, more precise answers are looked for. For a definition of death to succeed is important that it is a universal definition and that under it, all human beings are correctly identified as alive or dead. This article initially examines the most commonly proposed positions on when a human being dies those of cardiopulmonary death, whole brain death, brainstem death and higher brain death and for each describes scenarios that provide counter-intuitive results. Intuition is used as a benchmark as this is what our patients most commonly use. The second part of the article seeks to establish a more robust definition of death. We argue that death is an event that takes place at a set point in time, when the collection of bodily processes that maintains homoeostasis finally cease. Based upon defining 'human being' as being in possession of human DNA and Olsen's Animalism, the model is applicable to a full lifespan and maintains personal identity throughout the course of life. That this conclusion will interfere with clinical practice concerning organ transplantation is considered, but countered with the argument that there has been a conflation of the normative question of timing of organ retrieval for transplantation with the metaphysical question of what is death.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Death / diagnosis
  • Death*
  • Humans
  • Life
  • Personhood
  • Terminology as Topic