Skip to main content Deutsch

Establishing Death

The final phase, extending from the successive suspension of all neural activity until death actually occurs, is described as agony. Agony is ultimately followed by the death of the individual.

Clinical death

Clinical death – potentially reversible by means of reanimation.

Characterised by

  • Unconsciousness
  • No pulse
  • Heart and respiratory failure
  • Dilated and unresponsive pupils

Indeterminate signs of death

Indeterminate signs of death, resulting from the dysregulation of major bodily functions, include

  • No breathing
  • No heart activity
  • No reflexes
  • Low body temperature

Possible causes for the appearance of indeterminate signs of death include: alcohol, drug or medication intoxication, anoxia (lack of oxygen), electrocution or lightning strike, traumatic brain injury, metabolic disorder-induced coma, hypothermia, etc.
In the event of these so-called indeterminate signs of death occur spontaneously, tehy may be reversible and resuscitation should be attempted.

Brain death

Brain death – State of cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem functions being permanently terminated.

The main symptoms of brain death include

  • Coma
  • No spontaneous breathing
  • Dilated and unresponsive pupils
  • No reflexes

Brain death must be present before organs can be removed for transplantation purposes. Legal basis: Austrian Hospitals and Health Spa Clinic Act.

Biological death

Biological death occurs when all organ functions have ceased or the last remaining somatic cells have died.
It is the doctor's job to pronounce death.

Definitive signs of death

Definitive signs of death in the body of a deceased person include:

  • Livor mortis
  • Rigor mortis
  • Injuries that are not compatible with being alive (e.g. decapitation)
  • Decomposition (autolysis, putrefaction, etc.)

The body of a person is called a corpse once biological death has been established.

Regulations on the handling of corpses are laid down by the respective provincial law; in Vienna, this is the Death and Funeral Act and the Vienna Hospitals Act.

Handling corpses refers to external examinations, port-mortem examinations, embalmment and exhumations, among others.

At a federal level, laws exist for forensic external and post-mortem examinations (Code of Criminal Procedure) as well as for various obligations to notify and report (Epidemic, Tuberculosis or AIDS law or the Law on Addictive Drugs).

The obligations of physicians to ensure confidentiality, report and notify are defined in the Federal Act on the Medical Profession.

Pursuant to the Death and Funeral Act, any person finding a corpse is obliged to alert the authorities of a death. In the event of a death or finding a corpse in a public place, the federal police must be notified. Deaths at home are to be reported immediately to the competent authority – in Vienna this is the MA 15 (Health Department). In hospitals and other in-patient facilities, the respective head is obliged to alert the relevant authorities.