On the definition and criterion of death

Ann Intern Med. 1981 Mar;94(3):389-94. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-94-3-389.


The permanent cessation of functioning of the organism as a whole is the definition underlying the traditional understanding of death. We suggest the total and irreversible loss of functioning of the whole brain as the sole criterion of death; this has always been an implicit criterion of death. If artificial ventilation is present, only completely validated brain dysfunction tests should be used to show that this criterion of death is satisfied. In most cases without artificial ventilation, permanent loss of cardiopulmonary function is sufficient. We propose a statutory definition of death based on the criterion of total and irreversible cessation of whole brain functions but allowing physicians to declare death according to their customary practices in most cases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Death*
  • Heart Arrest
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Medical
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Respiration
  • United States