Worst Ways To Die?

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.

Thoughts On Death

(Author’s Note: I originally meant to write about my reaction to an article I read about medically assisted suicide, but it became a personal reflection on death and dying instead. I’m going to post it anyway despite the intimate nature of these thoughts. I hope that you will consider them with respect. Thank you.)

We don’t talk about death. That’s the rule.

It’s not just an unwritten rule, either; it’s illegal to want to die in almost every state except for four. Unless you live in Oregon, Washington, Vermont or Montana, you are not allowed to ask for help to end your life, no matter how ravaged you are due to disease, no matter how much dignity you’ve lost, no matter how onerous life has become, you have to tough it out to the bitter end.

And to that I ask: why?

No, that’s not right. I know why.

Part of it is because of the pervasive and poorly-defined concept of “the sanctity of life,” which is a somewhat ironic condemnation when it’s coming from a vegetarian. In fact, I support the sanctity of death because of my respect and love for life. The sanctity of death is necessary for there to be any such thing as a sanctity of life. The word sanctity is used without understanding what it’s supposed to mean. People think it means being alive is more important than everything else, but that’s not correct. Is being alive more important than living with dignity? Is being alive more important than being without agony?

Regardless, we don’t talk about death even though it’s the one thing that we all have in common. It’s our common bond and our equalizer: kings and beggars both die. Men and women of every race, every creed, every class, every corner of the world. We all die.

Everything dies. Even the planets, stars, and galaxies die. Reality itself will likely die someday due to entropy. We’re all in this together. Nobody’s getting out alive.

Why are we afraid of that? Why don’t we talk about the most common element of our shared humanity? We celebrate life in all its forms, save for the one aspect that gives life its greatest meaning. We plan weddings, graduations, the births of children, and all of life’s other many milestones, but when it comes time for the grand finale, how many of us think about it? Ever? Instead, we let others plan it for us and define a moment that should be ours, assuming there’s even somebody around at that point to pay attention. Not everybody has even that much.

It’s not a question of wanting to die; I don’t really want to, but wanting isn’t really the point. It’s about accepting that I will and you will and we all will.

It’s about having a healthy respect for life.

And to me, stretching life out long past the breaking point isn’t about respecting it at all. It’s the same as the author who pushes out repetitive novels of earlier and better works or the movie franchise that had too many sequels or whatever other creative thing you enjoyed until its creator squeezed it too tightly, trying too fervently to get every last drop out of it rather than letting go and moving on.

The best stories are the one that end when it’s their time to end.

The saddest stories are the ones that are forgotten because they hung around far past the point of anybody caring because they weren’t allowed to end.

So, here’s me, right now in a point in time and space, thinking about the future. Thinking about the end and how I want it written.

Here’s how I want my story to end. I might not get this ending; every writer knows that sometimes your characters throw you for a loop or the story takes an unexpected twist. But assuming it all turns out as planned, this is the way my story ends.

I want to be at home.

One of my greatest fears is dying in a hospital. I don’t like hospitals; they’re cold and mechanical places. I feel terrible every time I walk past the open door of an occupied room in a hospital, because I imagine myself lying in that bed, looking out at the people walking past the door and knowing that they don’t know me and they don’t care that I’m dying. Hospitals are very lonely places, no matter who you’re with. I don’t want to die in a lonely place.

I want my final moments to be experienced in my favorite place: my place. I want to see my pictures and my books and whatever technology I have and whatever pets I have. I want my family to be there if they can, but I don’t want them to feel the need to keep a vigil over me for fear that I might die alone. So long as I’m in my space, no matter where that space is, as long as it’s home, I won’t be alone.

This is why I support the right to die.

I should be allowed to decide these things. I should be allowed to experience my last moment with dignity. It may be that this never happens: my death may be sudden or it may be an unexpected accident or it may be that I never experience the slow, wasting away due to disease and this right is unnecessary.

But if it does end with me in a ravaged state, I want to know that my life and my story end with the respect that I, and every other person who ever has lived, ever does live, and ever will live deserve.

Because to ignore it and pretend that it won’t happen isn’t just irresponsible. It isn’t just magical thinking. It means we forget, or worse, ignore the needs of those who are dying for fear that they might remind us of our own deaths. Some people might say there’s nothing worse than death. I can think of many things that are worse than death.

Being forgotten in your life’s final moments is worse than death.

Being ignored in your life’s final moments is worse than death.

Dying in agony is worse than death.

Dying without dignity is worse than death.

There are many things that are worse than death and we perpetuate them every time we shun the dying to a corner and turn our eyes away.

This is why we should talk about death.

No Post Today, So Enjoy This Icy Finger of Death

I think the clip speaks for itself. See you tomorrow.