Recently, I lost a loved one to suicide by hanging. There was a man who arrives at him at some point after the person committed suicide. The man did not make any attempts to save the victim, saying the victim was already dead. On the other hand, he says that the hands were fisted. Do fist hands not mean the victim was alive back then? I suspect if the body was dead, the hands ought to have been loosened already. Could there have been a shortcoming in saving the victim?

It's very tough time for me to find the truth given that the person arrived about 30 minutes after the deceased committed suicide (based on the timing given by rigor mortis) and that he had some old resentments with the decreased.


First off, my condolences on your loss.

No one can tell you whether the person was alive when found or if more could be done because that would be pure speculation. We don't have sufficient information to even make an educated guess. But I can tell you that finding the fists clinched alone is not sufficient to conclude that they were still alive or that more could have been done.

Normally, when cardiac arrest occurs, all the muscles in the body go limp immediately and stay that way until rigor sets in. However, what you've described fits the phenomenon known as Cadaveric Spasm very closely, as you can see from this description:

Cadaveric spasm is a condition in which a group of muscles that were used profusely just before death becomes stiff and rigid immediately after death.[24] This ‘instantaneous rigor’ mostly involves hands, very rarely, the entire body may undergo cadaveric spasm. It can occur in assaults involving a scuffle before death, in suicides, and cases of drowning, etc. In such scenario, the victim’s hand presents as rigid and clenched, holding/ grasping on to the clothing, buttons, or hair, etc. of the assailant (in assault), maybe holding the weapon used for committing suicide, or the weeds, gravel mud, etc. from the water bed (in drowning). While rigor mortis provides information about time since death, the cadaveric spasm is valuable in commenting on the manner of death.

Your description matches several key points in the description above:

  • In a hanging death, it's quite likely the victim struggled and clutched at the rope in the final moments, thereby using their hand muscles profusely.
  • It was a suicide.
  • "the victim’s hand presents as rigid and clenched" -- as did yours.

So you can't base any conclusions on what the first arriving person found and what they should or should not have done based on the clinched fists.


Cadaveric spasm was described in JAMA in 1898.

  • Wow, good answer! TIL. +1 Apr 11 '21 at 3:00
  • Thank you. Please see the updated post.
    – djnotes
    Apr 11 '21 at 3:06
  • 2
    @codezombie If it's known that the person arrived 30 minutes after the suicide, then there's really no realistic way the victim could have been alive. Hanging by the neck gives you just a few minutes to live, maybe 5 or so, but nowhere near 30.
    – Carey Gregory
    Apr 11 '21 at 4:08
  • @CareyGregory does this change given that the victim's hands were free to struggle before death?
    – djnotes
    Apr 11 '21 at 4:46
  • @codezombie The time you have to possibly stay alive if a rope is constricting your trachea and your carotid arteries is a few minutes. Your hands don't have much to do with it. I'm not a crime scene investigator so I can't help you further on this.
    – Carey Gregory
    Apr 11 '21 at 5:13

I lost a friend to a hanging suicide about 30 years ago, so I looked into this. I'm not medically trained, so the following is a summary of what I could discover; please check it before relying on it.

Rigor, either of the whole body, or localized as spasm, is where myofiber (muscle) cells fully contract once they exhaust their internal energy reserves. These cells are relatively tolerant of anoxia, so this doesn't usually start until around 2 hours after respiration ceases, but may occur much sooner if the muscles have been exercising or heated.

Many people who attempt suicide by hanging wrongly assume that it is an instantaneous method. However like any method that relies on depriving the brain of oxygen, loss of consciousness may take up to 15 seconds after blood flow to the brain stops, or several minutes if breathing is stopped but blood flow to the brain continues.

Suicide by hanging often fails to break the neck, and fails to constrict the carotid artery, allowing for vigorous activity by the forearm muscles so that they may become both "exercised" and "heated".

The adrenal stress response increases metabolism within the brain, continuing to burn the small-and-now-depleted energy reserves in brain tissue even after consciousness is lost, which reduces the time during which they could potentially be revived.

Unless the victim is (unusually) strong enough to lift their own weight and relax the asphyxia, and has the presence of mind to do so, they are unlikely to remain conscious long enough for muscular activity to make any appreciable difference to the length of time for whole-body rigor mortis to set in.

  • Interesting answer (sources?) but I'm a little puzzled by your paragraph that begins "Suicide by hanging..." and your final paragraph that seems to say the opposite.
    – Carey Gregory
    Apr 12 '21 at 3:56
  • I meant, unlike body specific parts such as hands, rigor of the whole body is not likely affected, because there's only so much thrashing about one can do before losing consciousness. In contrast, the muscles that contract the digits can be fully exercised quite quickly. Apologies that I can't provide sources as this was mostly from reading dead trees and talking to doctors, and I'm sure I've forgotten a lot too.
    – Martin
    May 19 '21 at 14:22

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