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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, including to things that would gross out a person who were still alive and conscious, such as insects crawling on them or animals taking bites.
  • an arm falling (for added pathos, dropping something significant the character was holding)
  • eyes unblinking (either Dies Wide Open or Big Sleep), no response to anything that would rouse a person who was still alive
  • body, particularly the legs, stilling from struggling to survive/escape whatever was killing them
  • no visible breathing or heartbeat (at least in non-supernatural situations)
  • violent and/or grievous injury and copious amounts of blood, particularly decapitation or neck turned all the way around
  • Complaining of the cold and going still
    • The skin of the victim going cold.
  • Lividity as the blood settles in the lowest place on the body.

A major variation on this trope is when it's symbolic, mainly for the benefit of the audience rather than the characters in the scene:

  • a light is on, signifying a character's life. It 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.
  • the wheel of the character's vehicle if s/he was in a crash. 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 petal makes a crashing sound on hitting the tabletop.
  • Something important to the character whose life hangs in the balance falls to the ground, possibly breaking. They may drop it themselves.
  • The sun goes behind a cloud.

Compare Bitter Almonds, which is how people on TV can detect a specific cause of death.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of He's Dead, Jim include:

Anime and Manga

  • Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid uses the arm-drop with Yu Lan, one of the Creepy Twins.
  • In Naruto, when Asuma dies, one of the flowers Kurenai is watering back in Konoha falls off its stem.
    • Other examples in earlier arcs include breaking pottery and the Hokage statues cracking. Among the fandom, flashbacks are also widely interpreted as very dangerous symptoms.
  • In Death Note, not one second after his initial onset of heart attack, the stirring spoon L always holds falls down.

  L: "Everyone, the Shiniga..." -- *heartbeat*

  • In Noir after Chloe dies, one of Altena's three candles representing the three Noir "saplings" goes out, and she seems to instantly know what it means.
  • Happens in Dragon Ball Z, particularly during the Saiyan saga. The one closest to the letter of this trope is Krillin listening for Yamucha's heartbeat after he was killed by a saibaman.
  • When Portgas D. Ace bites the big magma fist, his "vivrecard" (a paper imbued with his life force) burns to ashes.
  • Subverted in Tiger and Bunny. Kotetsu is a bit miffed that the other heroes didn't even bother to check his pulse before concluding he was dead.
  • Done briefly in Puella Magi Madoka Magica and later taken back when Madoka throws Sayaka's soul gem away, causing Sayaka to lose control of her body until the gem was retrieved.

Film

  • Averted in of all things Star Trek: Wrath of Khan when Spock dies. McCoy is present and is one of the two major characters tackling Kirk to stop him from opening the radiation shield doors to reach a dying Spock. The original script had McCoy saying "He's Dead, Jim" but DeForest Kelley refused to say the line, knowing it would cause audiences to laugh instead of cry. It's left to Scotty to tell Kirk "He's dead already."
  • Disney:
  • In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max isn't really inclined to help, so does the "pick up a body part" version, though he knows better.
    • He was Only Mostly Dead anyways...
      • Could have been checking for rigor mortis, which a real corpse would have had by that point.
  • Three Amigos. The Invisible Swordsman is dead, but we don't know until one of the Amigos lifts and drops his invisible arm, creating a very nice puff of dust in the process.
  • Star Wars: when Vader is choking the Rebel, we see a close-up of his feet, but it's only to establish that Vader is holding him up in the air; his legs are never kicking even when he dies (well, at least we don't see it).
    • The bones in his neck being crushed sorta drove the point home.
  • Citizen Kane has the hand falling and dropping the snow globe.
  • I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. After a man is shot multiple times, sad music starts to play. When the Heroes ask his girlfriend how he is, she says "He's dead! Can't you hear the music?"
  • In Carry On Up The Khyber a soldier appears to be dead so they pull a sheet over his face. He then sits up and goes: "That's right, suffocate me!" then dies for real.
  • Rather Egregious at the end of Green Street, since it's averted another time in the same film: one character gets glassed in the throat, and his mates drag him out of the fight and speed to the hospital, y'know, like you would - but another one, at the climax, gets beaten to a bloody pulp, and those very same mates stand around grieving while he's still breathing. Maybe the accent annoyed them too.
  • Used in the movie version of Clue when the guests discover the missing Mr. Boddy, who is now officially dead - Wadsworth picks up one of his arms, lets it drop, and comments "Well, he's certainly dead now."
  • Transformers: After the US Army has little to no effect at bringing down the Decepticon Brawl, Bumblebee pelts him with shots from his own weapon, eventually scoring a direct hit on his spark, killing him and having his dead body collapse and crash through a wall next to where the soldiers were taking cover. One of the lines that follow from the soldiers: "OK, the tank is definitely dead now."
  • The falling-and-shattering-object version was used twice--with the same object--in the Lord of the Rings films. Except that neither of the characters invoved actually dies...they're just trying to make you nervous.
  • The "arm falling" version occurs in The Matrix Reloaded when the Keymaker dies. Somewhat justified in that his chest was full of Agent Smith's bullets at the time.
  • In Dead Man Walking, the titular dead man walking flatlines and Dies Wide Open when he is executed.
  • The Walden Media Voyage of the Dawn Treader film plays with this trope, as many of the lords they encounter are pretty obviously dead (skeletal remains and such). The hilarious thing is that Caspian can recognize all of them immediately, even though some of them have no features left to recognize them. Either the guy really did his homework, or he ought to be the lead in CSI: Narnia.
  • Spider-Man 2: Doctor Octavius is proven to die when the lights in his Doc Ock arms go out and don't try to get him to safety.
  • In Like Flint. Flint can tell whether a man is dead just by holding and looking at his face briefly.

Literature

  • 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.

Live Action TV

  • Star Trek of course 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".
    • 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 offense. 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.
    • 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.
      • So did his wife, Niki.
    • 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 a pipe, 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.
  • 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. I guess 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. Of course, 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).
    • It should be noted that 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.

Theater

  • 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.

Video Games

  • 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 and 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. To be fair, though, Sosa didn't have time to check for sure, since the same guards who had just killed Vagabond were still shooting.
  • Halo 3 used the "body goes limp" method for the death of Miranda Keyes. And Sgt. Johnson.
    • To be fair, she has just been shot in the back with exploding needles while not wearing any armor. Also, the sensors in Master Chief's Powered Armor may be good enough to detect vitals.
  • 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 Guns of the Patriots, 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.

Web Comics

  "Does he... does he have the X's in his eyes?"

Western Animation

  • In Futurama, one of Fry's characteristic gags (one of the few that didn't revolve around his collossal stupidity) was announcing "He's dead," whenever the cast came across a body. Star Trek, incidentally, is a frequent subject of parody and shout outs on the show.
    • There's also a flashback scene in one episode with Leonard Nimoy narrating how Trekkies were executed by being flung into a volcano, with the men performing the duty saying "He's dead, Jim" after each death.
    • Parodied another time when Bender/Coilette had to fake his/her death in order to get out of marrying Calculon:

 Dr. Zoidberg: I'm a doctor, she's dead.

    • And again when the cast was attempting to recreate the final episode of Show Within a Show "Single Female Lawyer".

 Farnsworth: Cough, then fall over dead.

Dr Zoidberg: My god, he's dead.

  • When Optimus dies in Transformers: The Movie, his eye lights go out and his colors fade to gray, supposedly signifying that his spark has been extinguished.
    • Other than the debates if Starscream turns grey or not before crumbling to ash, no one else that dies in the movie changes color. So only important or extremely popular Transformers go monochrome apparently.
      • Actually, Prowl and Ratchet's nearly-monochrome appearance makes it hard to tell, although we do see Prowl's red head-crest fade to black as his head rears back. Ironhide is still clinging to life as the camera cuts away, just before Megatron delivers the deathblow, so he wouldn't be faded. As for Brawn, Wheeljack, and Windcharger, who are all shown still in full color, however... it's not helped through a possible animation error in "Call of the Primitives" that shows Windcharger, a definite animation error in "Carnage in C Minor" that shows Brawn alongside a miscolored Huffer and an unidentified Constructicon, and the Japanese-only sequels that show Wheeljack alive and well. (Further mucked up in that Prowl is also seen in The Headmasters, despite being name-checked among the dead in "Dark Awakening"!)
    • Transformers Animated shows dead Transformers grayed out as well.
    • This is also shown with Hot Shot in the alternate past scene in Transformers Armada: "Drift". Earlier, after sacrificing himself to block the Hydra Cannon blast, Optimus turns white (along with Eye Lights Out) before crumbling into dust. In the penultimate episode, Sideways also experiences Eye Lights Out.
  • In "Family Guy", Glenn Quagmire fakes a heart attack to escape his marriage. After he collapses, Joe Swanson (who had been in on the whole plan) declares, "He's dead. I know, I'm a cop."


Real Life

  • 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.
    • And 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. As noted, the Chunky Salsa Rule does apply.
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