Zombies, mummies, vampires… all of these undead ghouls have conspired to create several myths surrounding the postmortem body through pop culture. However, what really happens to our mortal bodies in the long run?
You know the general drill.. after the decaying process is largely over, our bodies begin to shrivel up. When preserved well, the body keeps it claim only on its dry parts – bones, nails, sometimes skin, and most interestingly… the hair!
Hair remains because it is essentially made of keratin. Keratin is a protein that doesn’t contain any water, and is also completely insoluble. No wonder your bathroom drains consistently lose their battles against the impermeability of hair! Hair is far too powerful to be overcome by the human plumbing system! Considering that even the Grim Reaper has nothing on hair’s resilience, it’s interesting to note what changes occur to this natural material once it’s separated from the normal bodily functions that monitor its processes.
Is hair dead?
One idea that has completely enraptured our collective imaginations is that your hair continues to grow after you die! However, this is untrue. Hair definitely does not grow posthumously. Its growth is directly connected to the blood vessels at the base of every hair follicle. These blood vessels feed the hair roots to keep them growing and break through the skin. By the time the hair reaches the epidermis (i.e., the outer surface of the skin), the cells within that hair are no longer alive. That’s why it doesn’t hurt to cut your hair… it’s basically already dead!
The only reason that this myth exists is that, when studied, it genuinely seems as though the hair on a corpse is growing on its own. However, this phenomena can be attributed, quite simply, to good ol’ relativity. Considering that human bodies are composed of 70% water, it’s no surprise that they shrink considerably in size once all the moisture is lost. In comparison to its now shrunken appearance, the corpse’s hair seems to have grown longer.
Does hair decompose and how long does it take?
The decomposition process depends on the environment in which it takes place. Rodents, insects and even microbes affect the rate. Even though they don’t consume it, they tend to hasten the process. Keratin which basically makes up hair resists enzymes which carry out decomposition. Environmental pressure is also another factor that plays a role in decomposition and the rate at which it takes place.
Does Hair Change Color After Death?
Hair gets its color from two different types of pigments: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is the pigment that gives our hair its darkness, while pheomelanin gives our hair its redness. Your hair color is especially distinctive because it has its own unique combination of eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin has two subtypes: black and brown. If you have more black eumelanin in your hair, then it would naturally be a darker color. Consequently, if there is a total lack of black eumelanin and low levels of brown eumelanin, then there is a high chance of you being born with blonde hair. As you grow older, the eumelanin levels of both kinds drop, which causes the greying of your hair.
Pheomelanin, on the other hand, is responsible for adding red and orange colors to your hair. It’s rare to have a high concentration of pheomelanin, which is why there are so few natural redheads in the world.
It does, however, exist in some quantities in everyone’s hair. It is also more stable than eumelanin. Eumelanin breaks down easily through the process of oxidization, but pheomelanin does not. Pheomelanin tends to hang around within the hair even after being exposed to extreme conditions. Therefore, under wet oxidizing climates, the eumelanin in the hair is lost over extended periods of time, leaving behind the red pigment, pheomelanin.
In short, the answer is yes! There is a chance that your hair could turn red after you die! If you need a point of reference, you should look at the ancient Egyptians. Their mummies seem to sport a healthy shade of murky red, despite the centuries of decay. It does take longer, though, for the oxidizing process to occur in controlled dry conditions like an Egyptian tomb. Even so, nature doesn’t discriminate. Red hair, the fashion of the undead, eventually gets to us all.
It’s interesting to note how transitory we consider our hair to be, cutting it confidently, knowing that it will simply grow back. However, the last set of hair follicles you develop will probably outlast civilization! Not so transient after all. Who knew the hair on our head could be that important!