The Debunker: Do Your Hair and Nails Keep Growing in the Grave?

by Ken Jennings

The poet John Keats called autumn a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Let’s leave the “mellow fruitfulness” for November, with its harvest festivals and frost on the pumpkin and whatnot. October, on the other hand, is all about the season of mists: mystery, sinister doings, ghouls and goblins, thrills and chills. In honor of the season, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-aleck Ken Jennings to fact-check the spookiest Halloween lore he could dig up and fill us in on all these monstrous misconceptions.

Spooky Myth #1: A Corpse’s Hair and Nails Keep On Growing.

Boy, what a huge untapped market this would be for the styling industry if it were true, especially as those preening baby boomers begin passing away. Permanent Waves and Mani/Pedis of the Living Dead!

Unfortunately, hair and nail growth is a biological process like any other, and it requires the kind of complicated hormonal regulation that only living cells and tissues can manage. What did you think, that cells no longer receiving any of the things that cells need to do stuff—oxygen, glucose, water, amino acids, minerals, etc.—would just be like, “No worries, we’re cool, I’ll just keep making hair and fingenails for you out of nothing”? Your follicles and the epithelial cells under your nails might keep chugging away for a matter of minutes or hours after brain-death, but once the gravy train of nutrients from the rest of the body ends: game over, man.

Why is this myth so widespread? For one thing, because it’s been immortalized in classic novels (All Quiet on the Western Front) and classic jokes (Johnny Carson: “For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off”). Its origins probably lie in the fact that skin begins to dry out shortly after death. Morticians use moisturizers to keep this process at bay, but without creepy cosmetic tricks, skin will dehydrate and recede visibly within days, and this might make nails or hair look longer in comparison, since more of the roots are exposed. But that’s it. Once you’ve gone the way of all flesh, your flesh is done, full stop. At that point, I’m afraid it’s too late to try growing out your bangs.

Quick Quiz: What future movie star and Oscar winner played the corpse being dressed by the undertaker in the opening credits of The Big Chill?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member Grahambones. Used under a Creative Commons License.