In episode 16 of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise, “ShuttlepodOne,” the characters Trip and Reed are stuck on a damaged shuttle craft with no ships, space stations, or friendly, habitable planets near enough to help them. They are expecting to die. It’s an elevator episode where these two characters, who are different from each other in an Odd Couple sort of way, get to bond. I like the episode, but one part has always stood out for me and not in a good way. In one scene, Reed starts shaving his beard and he explains that it’s because basically he wants to leave a clean-cut corpse for when people find Shuttlepod One after they die. Trip, however, points out that if he remembers his Honors Biology course correctly then your hair and nails continue to grow after you’re dead. Reed stops shaving as he realizes the futility of his endeavor.
Honors Biology, Trip? Really? I certainly hope no one’s teaching that in any biology course today let alone one in the twenty-second century. In my mind, I like to think that Trip was just trying to get Reed to focus on more important things but still, this fun “fact” better not be around in the future. People seem to love to repeat morbid little facts like this—hell, I know I do—but this thing isn’t even close to true. And yet I used to hear it all the time. It’s even mentioned in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, but I can forgive Ros and Guil seeing as how they then claim that toenails never grow at all. Plus, they can’t even get their own names straight.
I admit, this isn’t so much a mummy myth as it is a dead person in general myth, but it’s one that bugs the hell out of me. You see, just like every other bodily function, hair and nail growth ceases at death. Much like the Guild Navigators from Dune need the spice to use their powers, hair and nails need nutrients from the blood to survive. The blood must flow. But when you’re dead, your heart stops pumping blood, so your hair and nails stop growing. Your body starts to decay after death, with skin sloughing off and your hair and nails falling out. The only things growing on or in you are bacteria and maybe fungi. However, this myth isn’t based entirely on nothing. If you google “hair and nails grow after death,” every article that disproves this myth quotes the same thing (and this article will be jumping on that bandwagon): William R. Maples’ Dead Men Do Tell Tales:The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist. On page thirty-nine, he explains, and dispels, this false factoid:
“It is a myth that fingernails and hair continue to grow after death. What really happens is that skin may retract around them, making the hair and nails prickle up and jut out more prominently. Erich Maria Remarque, in his novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, imagines a dead friend’s nails growing in weird, subterranean corkscrews after his burial. It is a powerful, disturbing image, but it is pure moonshine. No such thing occurs.”
So it’s all just an illusion. If it were true, then every adult male mummy would have a full beard, and that’s just not the case. Next time you hear someone tells this myth, explain the truth. It’s a fun little morbid fact, too, with the added benefit of being an actual fact.