Characters (and meta-wise, the audience) are able to tell the instant another character has died even though such a determination can actually be quite difficult and mistakes are made even by experienced physicians (e.g. people Waking Up at the Morgue
). How accurately depends on a few factors:
- Whether the character is a trained physician
- Whether the character is supernatural
- Whether the character doing the checking is even human.
- Whether the character being checked is even human
Rarely is anyone ever just unconscious or in a coma
, unless they're recurring and merely Left for Dead
by the bad guy, supernatural
or about to be Waking Up at the Morgue
This, of course, is a reference to Leonard "Bones" McCoy's frequent (and frequently parodied) line in Star Trek
, although it could debatably be justified by various types of Applied Phlebotinum
Characteristic methods used to determine a character's death involve checking the pulse at one of a few places on the body, listening for a heartbeat. Other methods involve:
- nonresponsiveness on the part of the deceased; no reaction even to things that would prompt an instant, disgusted flinch from someone was still alive and conscious, such as insects crawling on them or animals taking bites.
- an arm dropping/hand falling open (for added pathos, letting go of something significant the character was holding)
- eyes unblinking (either Dies Wide Open or Big Sleep), no reflexive response to a direct touch on the eye
- a struggling character's limbs slowing down and eventually stopping, especially if the person had been fighting to survive/escape whatever was killing them
- no visible breathing or heartbeat (at least in non-supernatural situations)
- obviously fatal injury and copious amounts of blood, such as decapitation or the neck turned all the way around
- the dying person complaining of the cold just before going quiet
- The skin of the victim going cold.
- The victim's skin, especially the face, turning pale.
- lividity (the skin takes on a reddish-purple coloration as the blood settles in the lowest place on the body).
- comically, their souls visibly depart their bodies, or their eyes turn to x's.
A common variation on this trope is when the character's death is shown metaphorically, mainly for the benefit of the audience:
- a light begins to blink and fizzle. If it stays on when all is said and done, the character will survive. If it goes out, he's a goner.
- if the character's vehicle was in a crash, a single wheel may remain in motion. If that wheel stops spinning, the character has died.
- the EKG in the hospital flatlines, leaving the dull tone.
- a flower loses a petal and the camera tracks its fall to the tabletop.
- something important to the character falls to the ground, possibly breaking. They may drop it themselves.
- The sun goes behind a cloud. Or the scene dissolves to clouds, invoking Fluffy Cloud Heaven.
Since this is one of the Death Tropes
, expect Unmarked Spoilers
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- Discworld tends to use the "really obvious injury" method of determining death. One example:
"He could still be alive," said Cohen defiantly.
"He is dead, Cohen. Really, really dead. Alive people have more body."
- Parodied in Pyramids where the doctor insists that all medical tests prove Teppic "mortis portulis tackulatum" (dead as a doornail), and obstinately explains confusing signs, such as the patient sitting up and walking away, as "reflex actions".
- In "Hogfather", assassin Mr Teatime (that's Te-AH-tim-EH insists that he checked the client for life signs thoroughly, checking his breathing with a mirror... and is told that might have been unnecessary given the unnatural distance at the time between said corpse's mouth and its lungs.
- And then rereferenced in Wintersmith, for exactly - well, almost exactly - the same situation.
- In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Only In Death, after Hark kills Soric, the body is not described at all, but the psionically sent music stops: "The sound of pipes ended, forever." Shortly thereafter, Hark finds a brass messenger container, of the sort in which Soric had received warnings; it is empty.
- Played with in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, wherein the Judge and the Doctor conspire to fake the Judge's death. Only the Doctor examines the Judge's "corpse" closely, and hastily pronounces him dead, lest anyone take a closer look.
- Justified in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where Nico di Angelo can tell if people are dead because he's the son of Hades.
- In Relentless, the trope is subverted. Daniel tells Grant to stop freaking and grieving for the Genius Loci group because Appearances Are Deceiving and dead bodies do not bruise.
- Star Trek is the Trope Namer. And the Applied Phlebotinum is the Tricorder, which may be more accurate; but Bones didn't always use it before declaring, "He's Dead, Jim".
- On occasion, Bones would give a more detailed description, such as "his neck was broken" and "every cell in his body's been disrupted".
- Amusingly, the first time the iconic line is spoken, Bones is talking about a dog-like alien creature (episode 5; "The Enemy Within") and not a crewmember.
- Deep Space Nine - "Starship Down": The Defiant is hit badly and everyone is tossed around. One of the bridge crew looks at two unconscious people for a moment, then declares them to be dead. No one questions this. Only the captain gets any medical attention.
- In a Star Trek: Voyager episode, while visiting a planet, Neelix bends over a native woman, who's just been struck down, and declares her dead. This may be the worst Star Trek offence. Neelix is an alien to this world, is not a physician and doesn't even have a tricorder.
- Though he's at least native to the quadrant, so he might have encountered her species before.
- Ironically, there's also two examples that are more like "I'm Dead Jim", and "You're Dead Jim", but obviously both get better by the end of the given episode.
- Doctor Who, "Turn Left", The Doctor's arm hangs off the stretcher, the sonic screwdriver falling to the ground.
- In "The Big Bang", the Doctor meets a future version of himself, who plops down. The Doctor then declares him "dead", our group goes off, and the future Doctor then proceeds to (off camera) wake up and fix things when no one is looking.
- Firefly subverted this in the pilot. Kaylee's arm drops, Mal tells Simon she's dead, and she turns out to be just fine.
- It's worth noting that Mal knows Kaylee is fine, he's just playing a cruel joke on Simon, who's partially responsible for her shooting and has been threatened with death should she fail to recover.
- It's also partially a Secret Testof Character, given the aforementioned threat. Simon avoided being spaced because of where he ran at that news: straight to the medbay.
- And averted it the other way around in Serenity: Wash is pretty clearly dead (alive people have less harpoon in their chests) but Zoe snaps and refuses to believe it momentarily.
- A straight example in Serenity: Simon makes no attempt to help Shepherd Book, who was alive just moments before. Simon arrived after Book went limp, but he should at least have checked him to see if he was really dead.
- Actually Simon slows down after seeing the expression on Mal's face, and then goes to check Book. It's easy to miss as the camera focus is on Mal and Simon's just working in the background.
- The villain in the Season 2 opener for Chuck holds Sarah up by the neck. The viewer sees legs kick for a minute, and then they stop.
- Heroes applies this trope most generously:
- The overwhelming majority of Sylar victims suffer the obvious grievous injury either via Sylar's Signature Style, or some other violent means.
- Claire has personally exhibited the grievous injury indicator, the glassy eyes indicator, and the no pulse/heartbeat indicator, sufficiently that she woke up on the autopsy table once, thanks to her power.
- Peter has personally exhibited the glassy eyed stare, and thanks to his power, he got better.
- Maya's victims suffered obvious grievous bodily injury.
- Mr. Linderman suffered obvious grievous bodily injury.
- Hiro's father suffered grievous bodily injury.
- D.L. suffered grievous bodily injury.
- HRG had the glassy stare after Mohinder shot him. Thanks to a transfusion of Claire's blood, he gets better.
- Tracy caused a case of glassy stare and unmistakably grievous bodily injury.
- That one didn't take either.
- Adam suffered the case of turning into dust.
- Arthur Petrelli is shot in the head, but no one thinks to make sure he's dead, even though he absorbed all of Peter's powers, including the Healing Factor.
- True Blood another which likely will use this trope liberally, has the glassy-eyed stare and/or grievous bodily injury methods so far.
- Dexter tends to use the grievous bodily injury method and the glassy eyed stare. But it also subverts the trope because the titular Anti-Hero is meticulous in his methods.
- In an episode of 3rd Rock From The Sun, Officer Don found Harry asleep and solemnly declared him dead.
- Subverted in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; a vampire (a crazy one, to be sure) bashes a civilian's head against a hard metal surface and declares him dead, but he's only stunned. Also, in season three, Cordelia gets impaled by rebar, sad music is played and we cut to a funeral. Then Buffy and Willow walk by talking about how Cordelia will be fine.
- Kai from Lexx claimed to be "good at determining the state of death. It was a required function for assassins of the Divine Order."
- Red Dwarf: Everybody's dead, Dave.
- Well, they were little piles of white dust. You would have to stretch things a bit to get one of them to be alive.
- The X-Files: Though Agent Scully is a physician, she seldom tries to resuscitate any victims of the Monster of the Week even if they were conscious only seconds before.
- Nobody ever checks for vitals in any of the Stargate shows, unless a qualified medical specialist is available on-hand. This includes the Quick Draw between Sheppard and Kolya. No one bothers to make sure Kolya is really dead. They assume Sheppard is that good a shot.
- This makes a little sense in the "Proving Ground" episode of Stargate SG-1, when one of the rookies shoots a guard at the SGC, as the four are scared, thinking that the base has been overrun. Had they checked his vitals, they would've figured out that he's only pretending, given that the whole thing is a test (all bullets have been replaced with blanks).
- Neither SG-1 nor Sheppard's team normally travel with a medical expert. While each member has, presumably, received first aid training, this may not qualify them to declare someone dead unless it's obvious from injuries.
- The Torchwood series uses and subverts this trope fairly liberally.
- Miracle Day has some of the most disturbing and egregious variations on this trope, as:
- Anybody designated Category 1 would have died before "the miracle" that has prevented people from dying when they ordinarily would have, so we have lots of people with grievous bodily injuries who aren't dead
- Captain Jack Harkness, who was, until "the miracle", temporally locked, has a flashback to his time in the 1920s during which he is repeatedly shot, stabbed, and beaten to death just to see him revive again.
- As Coroner Steiner dies in The Mentalist, Jane eases his passing by having him focus on a coin trick. As his life slips away, Jane vanishes the coin.
- Lampshaded in Psych. Shawn and Gus are standing over the one-shot character who just saved their lives giving an impromptu eulogy. The "dead" guy then reaches out for them, asking "Doesn't anyone check for a pulse anymore?"
- The Walking Dead has a variation on the metaphorical indicator. A shower head continues to spray after the person using it has fallen. The spray diminishes to a trickle, then a drip. The dripping stops, indicating the person died.
- Chagal in Tanz Der Vampire is rather disappointed when his beautiful victim Magda goes limp and doesn't move right after he's bitten her. Then again, he had just bitten her; if anybody'd realize instantly that she was dead, it'd be him.
- Subversion: Mimi in RENT goes limp with her eyes open after Roger plays his song for her; however, she's Not Quite Dead, Jim. Played straight in the Dutch production, where she dies for real, just like in the original opera.
- The theatre adaptation of War Horse: All the horses in the play are controlled by three puppeteers each. When a horse dies on stage, the puppeteers leave it there and exit the stage themselves, making it rather obvious what happened. What makes it striking is that after having watched the play for so long, the audience has completely forgotten about the puppeteers despite them being in plain sight, until they suddenly leave.
- In Mega Man X 4, after Zero accidentally killed Iris he realized she was dead after calling her name and trying to shake her back to consciousness. Sadly, the english version of this scene is Narm thanks to the bad acting.
- Psychonauts uses the "body going" limp variant... comically. The matador Dingo Inflagrante in Edgar Teglee's psyche dies while giving a speech to his beloved, and his entire body goes limp. She starts to cry... and Edgar looks relieved (and dumps both the girl and the body of Dingo into a pit), because his death symbolizes Edgar letting go of his grudges and getting over his anger issues.
- Another one that may or may not count is in the Lungfishopolis level. When Goga - I mean, Raz, as a giant monster rampaging across the city talks to one of the lungfish, they shout in pain and collapse. Another rushes in, looks at the lungfish on the ground, and immediately says:
Lungfish: He's dead.
Raz: Oh my god, I'm so sorry.
Lungfish: We are all prepared to die for the resistance, Goggalor.
- Humorously, Raz sees the dead lungfish briefly clutch at the air before going back to being dead.
- And is about to point this out, but the other lungfish continues to talk. Raz's face.
- Beyond Good & Evil uses the "no heartbeat" variant. When Jade and Double H find Pey'j's body, Double H checks him for a heartbeat. When he finds none, he shakes his head and mouths the word "no."
- Wing Commander IV, with Vagabond's death.
- Halo 3 used the "body goes limp" method for the death of Miranda Keyes. And Sgt. Johnson.
- Subverted in Fate/stay night. We never really learn what it was Caster did to Kotomine, but she's obviously certain he died. But then Tohsaka doesn't buy her story at all and asks if she really did a thorough check to see it Kotomine was dead. Caster's composure and assurance crumble and the subject gets dropped quickly after. Apart from obviously still being alive, we see why Tohsaka is so sure he's alive in HF: He lived for two days without his heart and could still fight, though he died of it before he could win.
- If you have Elanee in your party during the scene in Jerro's Haven in Neverwinter Nights 2, she can tell that Shandra is dead from across the room. Despite the fact that this is a universe where Death Is Cheap and you should logically be able to just resurrect her.
- In The Journeyman Project, once you hear a flatline-like tone, You're Dead, Gage.
- At the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, when Big Boss drops his cigar in the cemetery.
- At the end of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the Triforce mark fades from Ganondorf's hand when he is impaled, signifying that he has been Killed Off for Real.
- In the intro to Banjo-Tooie, Banjo tells Mumbo that Bottles is not merely "unwell" at the very moment the mole's ghost can be seen (by the player, at least) departing his body.
- Sometimes averted in World of Warcraft because of glitches. Normally, when you or your target die, the health bar changes from (say) "42/1337 Health" to "Dead". But sometimes a packet drops and you'll see a dead monster as alive, or yourself as dead after being resurrected. In the former case, you can't loot the corpse; in the latter case, you can't attack or cast spells.
- Averted in many jurisdictions in Real Life. Many do not allow first responders to declare someone dead unless it's blatantly obvious, like decapitation or decomposition. Otherwise, the responder has to do the standard lifesaving procedures (CPR and the like) until a certified doctor can declare the person dead.
- Even then, protocol is for the patient to have no heart beat or respiration for at least a full minute - and to be at close to or above normal body temperature. The Chunky Salsa Rule does apply.