While religion and politics are two topics that are considered taboo for polite conversation, there's no denying they can get a boring cocktail party hopping, fast. Let the same be said for an attempt to engage a passing acquaintance in banter about what --in his or her opinion -- is the absolute worst way to die.
What, are you unsure of how to begin? You've come to the right place. In the next few pages, we'll provide plenty of information, sources and grisly details to create or bolster nearly any argument one could have about the worst ways to die.
Yes, from animals gnawing at you as you watch them -- fully cognizant -- to how your mind must embrace and accept death as you spend much too long hurtling toward Earth in a crashing plane, you'll find loads of ways to both spice up (or end!) any cursory conversation.
Settle in as we begin with a discussion of starving to death.
For many of us, eating is pretty much the best part of any day. It serves to reason that not eating -- in any capacity -- would be a horrible way to live life. Even worse, though, is depriving your body of food to the point of death.
First of all, a body can live for a surprising 60 or so days without food (although liquids like water or even coffee must be taken) [source: Koerner]. But what a miserable couple of months they are. After less than a week, the body begins to develop dangerous symptoms as it begins to feed off stored fat for energy. The liver begins to panic first, producing toxins that can be harmful in large quantities. Before a month is up, you're losing about 18 percent of your starting weight [source: Koerner].
And then, of course, your body begins to consume its own muscle and organs to be sated with energy. You can prolong the starvation process by ingesting much-needed salt, but it's hard to deny how miserable your final days would be.
Here's the thing about the worst ways to die: Some of them don't sound that bad if you can forget that you die in the end. Case in point: being adrift at sea.
Sure, you might be thinking, being adrift at sea sounds miserable but at least you have the hope that a passing cruise ship will spot you, or that a mermaid will befriend you and teach you how to breathe underwater. (We all have our fantasies.) But we're not talking about the 10 coolest ways to get rescued, remember.
Reading through tales of those lost at sea -- and some of them don't have the luxury of having a boat, and are just bobbing in open water -- you start to realize how crushing it must be to be surrounded by endless possibilities for demise. Will it be a shark that takes a bite out of you ... or chomps your boat, which leaves you thrashing in the water waiting for the shark to return? Will it be starvation? Will it be hypothermia after your boat capsizes in a storm?
The possibilities are endless, awful and the only thing left to think about. Which is why being adrift at sea is safely on our list of worst ways to die.
Now bear with us here. "Falling into a volcano?" you say. "Sure, that sounds bad but you're pretty much dead, dead, dead before you could blink, right?"
Well, surprise, my morbid friends! Because of the relative density of lava, you'll be delighted to know that if you were to fall into a volcano Gollum-style, you will probably not be swallowed like a rock plopping into the water. Instead, you will land on top of the lava with a soft little hiss (OK, I made that up) and then basically burst into flame. Which is pretty miserable and sad.
If burning on top of lava crust isn't bad enough for you, you'll be glad to know that another scientist tested this theory by throwing a 66-pound (30-kilogram) bag of food into a volcano to discover -- hooray! -- sometimes the crust can be penetrated by bags of organic matter (i.e., humans). So if you're really looking for a miserable way to die (and please call someone if you are, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at 1-800-273-TALK/8255), jumping into a volcano might just be the way to do it.
So imagine this: You're not only going to die, but you have to -- believe? pretend? -- that you're being ritualistically killed because you're a perfectly beautiful and physically unblemished specimen. Unfair, man.
And with that we come to human sacrifice, another Worst Way To Die. In this case, we're talking about the Incan tradition of human sacrifice. Usually involving a chief's child, human sacrifice was a pretty cold affair. Literally, actually -- the ritual would take place high on an Andes summit. (They did feed the victim some liquor however, the day of the ritual, presumably to arm them a little against the weather and pain.) Archaeologists aren't too sure how painful a death the victims encountered; many of them do have skull fractures, which leads them to believe if they were not killed by the blow, they were at least knocked out before they died of exposure. Which, considering the gruesome nature of the process, still seems like cold comfort. (Har har.)
But human sacrifice is out of most of our wheelhouses. Let's all ruminate darkly on something most of us can relate to: dying a horrible death in a fiery plane crash.
Call it a copout, but there's something to be said for the utter misery of dying in a plane crash. Like a lot of our Worst Ways to Die, it's not necessarily the death part that's going to be so awful. It's the utter inevitability that accompanies the long moments before it all ends.
Let's just get the awful facts straight, so you know what you're dealing with when the plane starts to go down. First of all, you're probably about 6 miles (31,680 feet or 9,656 meters) in the sky. If you're in a real free fall, hypoxia might set in and you'll be unconscious for roughly the first mile of the fall because of lack of oxygen.
But then you'll wake up -- hooray? -- to discover you're still plunging 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour), and still have a full two or three minutes to go from about a 30,000 foot cruising altitude to the very hard and unforgiving ground.
Maybe the worst part of a plane crash is that it's a common fear, as well. Let's be honest; the worst way to die is a deeply personal choice. If you fear air travel, your imagination soars about sputtering engines, clipped wings and the like. If you fear snakes. ... well, read on.
Animals are great. They provide comfort and companionship and are a source of humor. Also, they can kill you and eat you. Which brings us to our next Worst Way to Die. It's kind of a catchall category, because it turns out there are many, many animals that are fine with gnoshing on your pretty person. So let's just cover a few here.
Unlike other cats that will kill and eat you (lions, tigers and so on), jaguars do not suffocate their prey by going for the neck. Instead, they use their elongated canines to bite through the temporal bones of their victim. Yup, they bite the brain. Ouch.
Not to be outdone, hyenas can hold their own in the cat-eating-people contest. While they might shake and break the spine of smaller prey, they hop to it with people-sized victims. When they have a victim prone, they start eating. Even if the person-sized victim is completely and utterly conscious.
While pythons and anacondas do asphyxiate a person, the cause of death is generally cardiac arrest from the lack of oxygen. And yes, they belong on this particular page because they've also been known to occasionally swallow victims after the squeeze.
You think animals that eat you are bad? Perhaps even worse is an animal that is being ordered to murder you. Such is the case of execution by elephant. Observed in the late 19th century, the punishment was brutal. Note that first the criminal was tied to the leg of the elephant by his waist, and taken for a bloody trot around the city. After that, the criminal was made to kneel and place his head on a stone. The elephant crushed the accused's head with his foot.
While being crushed whole is awful, also consider the unpleasant alternative of dying after only an appendage has been crushed. Toxins build up at a crush site, including large amounts of potassium that can cause cardiac arrest and myoglobin, which can result in kidney failure -- even after the object is removed. Dying from being crushed even after you've had the good fortune of getting out from under the object? A Worst Way to Die, indeed.
Hypothermia, or freezing to death, isn't quite as exotic as being executed by an elephant. But it certainly belongs on this list, as it combines a slow struggle with a painful death.
The body freezes in gradual stages. While we start out at a normal 98 or so degrees F (37 degrees C), as the body cools we start shivering. That's a sign your muscles are beginning to realize that we need to generate heat, stat. When no heat is supplied, our muscles become stiff and wooden, which means our motor control and coordination go out the window. Note that if you're tumbling around making contact with the ground, you're probably getting colder. Your brain is also suffering; you can't think clearly or hold a thought.
And then the shivering stops.
Which is very, very bad. Because now your body isn't even creating a cursory heat, and your overall temperature plunges. Your body's organs and responses are so slowed that it might actually appear that you're dead before you even are. Luckily, you do lose consciousness at some point, so you've got that going for you. Still, an unpleasant and typically drawn-out way to go.
No list of Worst Ways to Die can be complete without acknowledging the psychopathic minds that came before us and created innovative, vulgar ways to be punished to death. Many ancient kingdoms and states were terrifically uptight about criminal offenses -- and let's not forget that modern society still punishes people with torture and death, too. But let's look at some particularly effective forms of death used back in the day. (A cautionary warning to readers: The following are gruesome.)
Sure, we're familiar with drawing and quartering from medieval England. But when it comes to torture, the Persian Empire was really in its own category of horror.
One of the techniques required that the victim stay for days in a room filled with ash. At some point, after passing out from exhaustion, the lungs of the victim would fill with ash and they would suffocate on the matter. Terrible, right? Well, prepare yourself for "The Tub."
This ancient Persian torture device required the victim to lie into a covered wooden tub, with only the head showing. The face would be smeared with honey and milk, where flies would then swarm. Note that they would be fed often and regularly, so the person was soon swimming in their own filth. At which point maggots would hatch. At which point maggots would devour the body. One man was said to be in the tub for 17 days before decaying -- alive [source: Schulz].
We've certainly collected our share of horrific ways to go. But there's one more way to go that deserves to be on the "worst" list because it's preventable. And that's dying from embarrassment.
So first: Yes, it's possible to die from actual embarrassment. When stress or anxiety rise -- which accompany embarrassment -- a surge of adrenaline enters the bloodstream that could kill you. It's for this reason that people can undergo a cardiac reaction from not just embarrassment, but fright or even a sexual response.
But we're speaking of a different embarrassment; too often, people are far too afraid or shy to get treatment or seek help for medical problems that they think are shameful or silly. While getting eaten by a python or being tortured is no way to go, do remember that the worst kind of death is one that, by all accounts, could have been prevented.
Every minute of every day, the world is trying to kill you. Figure out which threats are most likely to cause your untimely demise at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Worst Ways to Die
While most of us enjoy spending our time on hobbies and relaxing with loved ones, others must find a kind of satisfaction in posting on message boards about grisly deaths. At least, that's the only thing that can be surmised from my research on the worst ways to die. Although helpful for me professionally, I can't deny that reading through pages of real and imagined death scenarios was also oppressively depressing. Next time you're considering regaling fellow commenters with a particularly dark story, consider a jog, or knitting -- even just a good stare at a blank wall -- instead.
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