Anna Gosline’s recent article in New Scientist, entitled “How Does It Feel To Die?” got our hearts pumping here at HowStuffWorks. Gosline interviewed experts to find out what it’s like to drown, fall from a tall building and ride the electric chair, among other terrible ways to die. This got us to thinking: Is there a worst way to die?
As it turns out, determining which mode of death is the worst way to go is subjective. There are impromptu polls on sites around the Internet (burning has a high ranking). But there’s no consensus among professionals like physicians or funeral directors about which method is the least desirable way to exit this mortal coil. A person’s fears may factor into his own personal worst way to die. The thought of falling to one’s death from a tall building, for example, would probably scare the daylights out of someone who is afraid of heights, but wouldn’t qualify as the worst death for someone else.
Awareness of the type of death and fear of the unknown can also make one kind of death more grisly than another. Dying in a plane crash is one example: The time between the airplane beginning its rapid descent and the moment of impact is more than long enough to generate terror. What’s worse, depending on the circumstances, the passengers may remain conscious during the entire process. The plane is literally — and unstoppably — carrying its passengers to their probable deaths, and of this they are all totally aware.
With most forms of death, unconsciousness meets the victim before the grim reaper does, thus releasing the dying person from the fear that grips him. But the moments before death can be fraught with fear and pain.
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.
But what is it about stories like this? Why is it that on some primal level we feel the urge to imagine the man running madly about as his tissue fell away from his bones? Why do articles like Gosline’s become so popular? In other words, why do we think about death? Read on to find out about an entire field of study dedicated to exploring death.
Thanatology and Ernest Becker
Death looms around us all, but for the most part, people try to avoid thinking about it.The success of antiaging skin care products and the hospital’s increased role as supporter of life beyond the time after quality of life diminishes both attest to this. But while people in most cultures may avoid thinking about death, others find it a fascinating study. An entire school of thought is dedicated to the study of death and dying — along with its processes, like grief. This field is called thanatology.
Thanatologists believe that humans have compartmentalized death in a quest to trick ourselves into believing that we will not die. Unfortunately, by failing to confront our own mortality — or even the mortality of those around us — we will be ambushed when death inevitably comes knocking. What’s worse, we will fail to live our lives in the best manner possible: It is the person who has accepted his own mortality who will live life to the fullest, say thanatologists.
Those who study death — physicians, funeral directors and psychologists alike — point out that before the early part of the last century, death was a very visible part of life in Western culture. When a person died, he most likely died at home. His corpse was often laid on a sofa or in a bed in the living room ironically enough, and meals were taken around it. Family members slept near the body of their deceased beloved. They had professional photographers take photos of the family gathered around the body, which was sometimes propped up with the eyes open to make the dead still appear to be alive.
This process often took place over the course of days before the person was buried. Both adults and children were exposed to the body. In this way, a child became socialized with death, and was arguably more ready to face his own mortality than the children of today.
So why is death so hard for many people to confront? Fear of the unknown is certainly one reason, but there is also another, more sublime aspect that is based on modern medicine.
A century ago, a person with cancer would die. A person with access to today’s medical technology has a much better chance to live. In this manner, some have come to see medicine as a way to cheat death, and rather than confront the fact that they will die one day, they look instead to medicine to save them from their inevitable fates.
This is what the psychologist Ernest Becker considered a distraction. Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book, “Denial of Death.” It was Becker’s opinion that culture at large served to distract all of us from our impending deaths. It’s as if we are all on the same roller coaster, chugging slowly up toward the tallest hill. At the crest is death, and every one of us will eventually make it to that crest. Culture in this metaphor is a set of giant televisions on each side of the coaster tracks, which some people choose to watch rather than look up toward the top of the hill and consider what’s beyond the hill.
But although some allow themselves to be distracted, we are all unconsciously fully aware of our finite time here on Earth. In Becker’s opinion, this causes feelings of anxiety and woe and is expressed through aggressive acts like invasions and wars.
Becker’s field of study — referred to as the psychology of death — does suggest a worst way to die. Since culture has the potential to distract us from confronting death, it can lead us to waste our lives. The worst type of death, according to Becker’s theory, would be one that followed an insignificant life.