There is still no consensus definition of complex systems. This article explores, as a heuristic approach, the possibility of using notions associated with life as transversal concepts for defining complex systems. This approach is developed within a general classification of systems, with complex systems considered as a general ‘living things’ category and living organisms as a specialised class within this category. Concepts associated with life are first explored in the context of complex systems: birth, death and lifetime, adaptation, ontogeny and growth, reproduction. Thereafter, a refutation approach is used to test the proposed classification against a set of diverse systems, including a reference case, edge cases and immaterial complex systems. The summary of this analysis is then used to generate a definition of complex systems, based on the proposal, and within the background of cybernetics, complex adaptive systems and biology. Using notions such as ‘birth’ or ‘lifespan’ as transversal concepts may be of heuristic value for the generic characterization of complex systems, opening up new lines of research for improving their definition.