When is a human dead

Dying: When is a person actually considered dead?

Jahi McMaths is lying in bed, eyes closed and carefully groomed. In the picture, the 17-year-old American from Oakland seems to be sleeping. But at the time of admission, she hadn't got out of bed on her own for years. It was kept alive by a machine - and that is why it was recently at the center of a debate in the USA about when life ends and death begins.

In the age of modern medicine, it is a real challenge for physicians, ethicists, lawyers and, last but not least, for relatives of people who find themselves in the gray area between life and death to answer this question. Because modern imaging methods and new therapy options are increasingly blurring the line.

Up until the 20th century people were considered dead when their heart stopped beating and their breathing stopped. Today cardiac death alone is no longer valid as a criterion for death. Instead, a diagnosis of brain death is seen as a reliable determination of a person's death.

Two doctors have to determine the death of the brain

Brain death means that the overall function of the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem has failed irretrievably and irreversibly. Two experienced specialists have to determine brain death independently of one another according to defined criteria.

But even this definition, as clear as it sounds at first, has its limits in practical implementation, as the case of McMaths shows. After a dramatically unsuccessful tonsil operation in 2013, her EEG no longer showed any brain waves. She was pronounced dead in California.

A doctor predicted MacMath's body would soon decompose. But her parents wanted to wait and took their daughter to the US state New Jersey. There it is possible to refuse to switch off the ventilator for religious reasons.