Thanatology is the scientific study of death. It’s also an excellent name for a metal band and it makes me wish I’d studied it in college so I could have a business card that proclaimed “Matthew Ciarvella, Thanatologist.”
A rousing discussion that started about the horrors of flogging, whipping and scourging morphed into one of those “worst ways to die” discussions. It’s always fascinating to me to see how people react to such discussions, even though it generally confirms that my attitudes towards death are outside the general norm, to say the very least. It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m always wearing a black shirt.
HowStuffWorks has a list of 10 worst ways to die. Here are my own thoughts on these various untimely ends:
- Starving: Starving seems pretty bad, especially because of how slow it is. You’re certainly going to have plenty of time to think about how miserable you are right up until the end. On the other hand, you’re not quite experiencing the sort of soul shattering agony that comes along with some of these other deaths. I also remember reading somewhere that victims sometimes experience a sense of euphoria in the final stages of starvation as the brain dies, which isn’t too bad, all things considering.
- Adrift at Sea: Another slow death and one that’s made worse by the crushing despair of the immensity of the ocean and the cruel indifference of the natural word to your plight. You have several ways to die here although the most likely ones to me are drowning due to exhaustion, dehydration (ironically), or hypothermia. You could also be eaten by a shark, I suppose.
- Fall into a Volcano: It certainly has more style points than more mundane kinds of burning, which is the typical answer most people give for this question. I have to imagine that this particular death would at least be quick, even if it’s very, very painful.
- Human Sacrifice: The exact specifics of death vary on this one; you might be left to die of exposure on a mountain or have your heart cut out of your chest. This one seems much more tame to me than most of the others, if only because it’s the only death on the list that has something approaching a sense of purpose for the victim. If you were Aztec, sure, you were dying, but you were dying to keep the sun from abandoning your people. That’s something, at least.
- Plane Crash: The horror here comes from how long you have to think about the fact that you’re going to die; usually several minutes or so. I think this one also trades more on the fear aspect most people have for flying than anything else.
- Eaten by Animals: There are so many different ways to be eaten by animals, many of them before your dead. There are many, many horrific variations, too many to list . . . although there’s one I’ll mention later, because it combines this with another entry further down the list.
- Crushed to Death: Sounds pretty bad, but at least it’s quick. I still wouldn’t want an elephant stepping on my head to be the last thing I ever saw or felt, though.
- Freezing to Death: I’m surprised that this is considered worse than burning to death. I remember reading somewhere that, during the final stages of hypothermia, the brain experiences euphoria like it does during starvation. You also tend to feel very warm, even hot, again due to the oncoming brain death.
- Torture: Such a simple word and yet it carries with it the very worst legacy humanity will leave on the world. There are so many ways to torture someone to death, and while the article mentions a really, really bad one involving a tub of shit and maggots, there are also the tortures that involve the “getting eaten by animals” part. A popular medieval technique: take a basket, sew it onto a victim’s neck, and then drop a few starving rats in the top of the basket. Leave them alone for a few days. Yeah.
- Embarrassment: Certainly, dying from embarrassment (or fright or whatever) would certainly be, well, embarrassing, but is it really worse than having your head gnawed on by starving rats? I’m not certain.
There are a few things I’m surprised didn’t make the list: getting buried alive certainly deserves a place on here. But for my money, the very worst-sounding death I’ve ever had the misfortune to read comes from another article on the same subject:
A physician we interviewed recounts the story of a laborer in Africa who worked around vats of sulfuric acid — one of the most caustic forms of acid. The man fell in one day. He quickly leapt out, but was covered in sulfuric acid, which immediately began to burn him chemically. In a panic and excruciating pain, the man ran outside. By the time his coworkers caught up to him, the man had essentially dissolved.
The acid burned the man to death, searing through skin, cauterizing blood vessels, and eating through organs until he died. The pain would be unbearable, and the circumstances irreversible. This is unquestionably a really bad way to die.
Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that one “the absolute worst way to die.” It takes all the worst aspects of burning to death and then cranks that shit up to 11.