Diagnosing death: the “fuzzy area” between life and decomposition

María A. Carrasco, Luca Valera*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This paper aims to determine whether it is necessary to propose the extreme of putrefaction as the only unmistakable sign in diagnosing the death of the human organism, as David Oderberg does in a recent paper. To that end, we compare Oderberg’s claims to those of other authors who align with him in espousing the so-called theory of hylomorphism but who defend either a neurological or a circulatory-respiratory criterion for death. We then establish which interpretation of biological phenomena is the most reasonable within the metaphysical framework of hylomorphism. In this regard, we hold that technology does not obscure the difference between life and death or confect metaphysically anomalous beings, such as living human bodies who are not organisms or animals of the human species who are informed by a vegetative soul, but instead demands a closer and more careful look at the “fuzzy area” between a healthy (living) organism and a decaying corpse. In the light of hylomorphism, we conclude that neurological and circulatory-respiratory criteria are not good instruments for diagnosing death, since they can offer only probabilistic prognoses of death. Of the two, brain death is further away from the moment of death as it merely predicts cardiac arrest that will likely result in death. Putrefaction, the criterion that Oderberg proposes, is at the opposite end of the fuzzy area. This is undoubtedly a true diagnosis of death, but it is not necessary to wait for putrefaction proper—a relatively late stage of decomposition—to be sure that death has already occurred. Rather, early cadaveric phenomena demonstrate that the matter composing a body is subject to the basic forces governing all matter in its environment and has thus succumbed to the universal current of entropy, meaning that the entropy-resisting activity has ceased to constitute an organismal unity. When this unity is lost, there is no possibility of return.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTheoretical Medicine and Bioethics
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Brain death
  • Death criteria
  • Hylomorphism
  • Integration
  • Organism


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