The Science And History Behind ISIS Beheadings: What is Decapitation? 


guiotineBecause of recent unfortunate events involving the Islamic State (ISIS) the issue of death by decapitation has come back to public awareness. What is decapitation? The truth is that this method of execution is as old as history itself, a custom of wartime and battle culture that spreads across cultures and ages. In fact, as a form of government-enforced capital punishment, death by beheading is still legal in the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar.

While our modern sensibilities consider beheading to be barbaric and gruesome, it was actually always considered a very humane method of execution. Why? What actually happens to a human when decapitated?

1. Science

Decapitation leads to certain death. Within a few seconds of a human head detaching from its body, the body experiences major blood loss and vital organs (heart, lungs, etc.) stop receiving instructions from the brain and cease to function. A lack of circulating blood leads to cell death and organ failure both in the head and the body, very quickly.

2. Consciousness

There exists a rumor that a brain can remain conscious for a few moments after decapitation. Most scientists deny the possibility of such a situation, but the fact that human blood can remain oxygenated and healthy for up to 12 seconds after the end of circulation leads people to theorize that a brain could continue functioning for the same period of time. There are popular stories about such incidents, one of the more infamous being that of Charlotte Corday during the French Revolution, whose severed head is said to have turned its gaze toward the executioner after he slapped it.

3. Ethics

Despite the barbarism and immorality of ISIS beheadings recently seen across the world, in terms of execution techniques, beheading is actually more “humane” (for lack of a better term) than others. Brain death occurs very quickly when a body is decapitated. Scientists believe that there might be a micro-instant of pain or sensation when a head is cut off, but not more.

4. Hassle

Rather than ethics, it is practicality that ended the popularity of beheading as a method of state-endorsed execution across most of the world. It’s a very messy procedure, due to the fact that circulating blood escapes a decapitated body through the neck and tends to spurt in all directions. Typically, blood will gush from a severed neck for about 30 seconds after a head is removed.

5. Chickens

Yes, both vipers’ and chickens’ bodies are able to function for a few seconds or minutes after being decapitated.

6. Internal vs. external

External decapitation is what we all know and recognize. However, internal decapitation, when the skull is detached from the spinal cord without the neck being cut, is just as deadly. This is exactly what happens during hanging, or by accident in many cases of head trauma.

7. Modernity

To most people, the guillotine is an ancient tool, hailing from the French Revolution. However, guillotine executions were legal and practiced in France way into the 1970s! The last person killed using the guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi, convicted of murder, in 1977. In 1981 France abolished the death penalty.

8. Celebrity

During its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the guillotine was a popular public spectacle, much like a fair or carnival attraction. In France after the Revolution, enemies of the new state were publicly beheaded in front of large crowds, who could even buy souvenirs from the event. The job of executioner was coveted, and the executioners themselves became celebrities. In France, the job was passed down for generations within the infamous Sanson family. In the late 1800’s a father son duo, Louis and Anatole Diebler, conducted state executions.