Legal death occurs when a qualified individual proclaims that additional medical care is no longer suitable for a patient, and that the patient should be declared dead under the law. In order to pronounce a patient legally dead, however, there are specific conditions that must be met. These conditions vary according to each circumstance. This is often due to moral and ethical conflicts in regards to what is considered a legal death.
Many of the cells within the body and brain are still alive for hours after a patient is pronounced dead. A regular death is the total ending of a person's life or the complete stoppage of blood circulation and every vital function of the body. Therefore, a regular death and legal death are not the same.
In situations where a patient has entered into a coma and has no brain activity, a qualified professional can pronounce the patient to be legally dead. When there is no activity in the brain, a patient is declared to be brain dead. Brain death is considered to be a coma that cannot be reversed.
The legal right for a qualified professional to declare a patient brain dead varies by jurisdiction. Declaring a patient brain dead is legal in most of the United States, for example. New Jersey and New York have conditions, however, that must be met before a qualified person can officially make the pronouncement. In these states, the patient's lungs and heart have to completely stop functioning as well before the patient can be pronounced brain dead.
Many people confuse a vegetative state with brain death, but the two states are not the same. A vegetative state occurs when a patient is in a coma due to severe brain damage; there may be some form of awareness, although he or she may still have no noticeable consciousness. When a patient is brain dead, he or she has no activity in the brain at all.
The science of cryonics is also an area where a qualified professional can pronounce a patient legally dead. It involves preserving a person or animal at extremely low temperatures by replacing the body fluids with anti-freeze fluids to keep the body from freezing. Those who support cryonics believe that the person or animal can come back to life in the future and be restored to complete health and free from old age. Cryonics can be lawfully performed after an individual is proclaimed legally dead. Considering that legal death and real death are two different types of death, the supporters of cryonics believe that patients are not really dead when declared legally dead.