Home > People, Philosophy, Science > Contemplating Death (1 of 3)

Contemplating Death (1 of 3)

Mortality is the single most elegant design element in the miracle of life.


Selworthy Cemetary, England

I contemplate death a lot. The subject fascinates me simply because it is beyond the realm of human appreciation. So why contemplate it? Because I know that one day, every thought that I have not written down somewhere will be utterly lost. The absolute tragedy in Japan really brought this home to me. In this post, I contemplate the intriguing inevitability of death.

WARNING: This post covers some relatively dark content. Additionally, some readers may find some of the photos featured to be quite graphic. Reader discretion is thus strongly advised.

The matter of death has been an obsession for me for some time now. I have even gone ahead and estimated when I think I may die by natural aging, considering my family’s history. I place a conservative estimate of my death to around April 22nd, 2047 — barring natural disaster, infectious disease, accidents and human malevolence of course. I know that sounds pretty morbid, but it helps me to appreciate the sheer brevity of our fragile lives much more.

Life Needs Death

We do live longer today than we did some 200 years ago. In fact, one of the greatest inventions of all time is the vaccine. Before the invention of vaccines, the average man lived to be 35 and if really blessed, he lived to be in his 60’s. After the invention of vaccines, it paved the way in medicine to treat common but deadly maladies and doubled our life expectancy.

Now in today’s world, we have so many medications and treatments, that mankind has quite effectively stalled the process of evolution. It is no longer about the survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the richest, or at the least, those with the best health insurance. Nature can’t weed out humans as effectively as it did before. We’ve found a way to delay death, which creates an increasing burden on the earth to sustain all 7 billion of us — and counting.

Because we’ve stalled the evolutionary process of humans with advancements in medicine, those who should have been weeded out of the system continue to breed, spreading their defective DNA, now shielded from the natural pruning process of evolution by many powerful vaccines and antibiotics. This is why when nature strikes back, so many more will die at once.

300 years ago, when a major earthquake struck land, very few people died, because there were far fewer of us around. Now that we’re living longer, the statistical likelihood of death increases exponentially. There are times I think that nature’s upheavals not only serve their related purposes, but also to act as a pruning mechanism to keep our resource demand low.

I know it sounds cruel and insensitive, but every time an earthquake, tsunami, volcano or a hurricane occurs and there is a significant human death toll, that number of people will no longer be making demands upon the earth for their survival. So in some dark, twisted way, these natural disasters are necessary to ensure that resources are available to the rest of us.

Ergo, the purpose of death is to sustain life. For if nobody died, then our world would be consumed by every human that was ever born that wasn’t slain in warfare or annihilated by natural upheaval. Today’s living humans would probably not exist. Warfare, disease and famine would be constant. Cities would not have evolved and technology would not have advanced. Therefore, mortality is the single most elegant design element in the miracle of life.

This is also why a place called heaven is probably not real (more on this in Part 3).

The Paradox of Death

There are certain things that we do that would statistically increase our likelihood of dying — like those of us who fly regularly for example. The odds of surviving a motor vehicle accident are phenomenally better than that of surviving an air plane crash, even though the latter is far rarer than the former. In fact, it is considerably more likely to be fatally struck by lightning.

There are others however that we simply cannot escape. If you were born with defective DNA, like the type that causes disease such as Cystic Fibrosis or Huntington’s disease, your death has already been foreshadowed. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t outlive a perfectly healthy person who unwittingly walks in front of a bus or puts a gun to their head.

In fact, much of the excitement being created about healthy living is a bit misleading. While the intentions are purely to ensure that everyone gets the very best out of life, even the healthiest among us sometimes spontaneously sprout deadly diseases like cancer or are suddenly snuffed out when their passenger jetliner mysteriously comes apart at 37,000 feet.

You can’t exercise your way out of that one.

We’re all going to die some day. No matter how much we exercise and eat right, no matter how much we avoid drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, unprotected sex, bad communities, snakes, bears and airplanes, many of us will not make our way out of the gene pool as gracefully as we came in. You see, while most births are rarely tragic, almost every death will certainly be.

I don’t mean to sound dark and foreboding, but even if you pass in your sleep, it is usually because some organ (usually the heart) failed. If it wasn’t brought on by disease due to old age or just ran out of juice because of its age, failure is what will ultimately kill you. So unless you’re fast asleep when that failure occurs, (which is quite unlikely) you’ll hurt before you go.

The Absolute Worst Ways to Die

Now it is commonly believed that there are some ways to die that are more peaceful than others. We all want to avoid the pain, right? Well after consulting with a few physicians, I’ve come up with a list of the very worst ways to go out. Some of these may surprise you (as evidenced by your voting on the poll), as the absolute worst way to die is not what you think.

These are ranked from least to worst in terms of the suffering involved considering the total compounded psychological (fear) and physiological (pain) factors and how long it would take to finally die. Bear in mind that these are not absolutes. Different individuals have different thresholds of endurance, especially when it comes on to suffering incurred just before death.

10. Crushed in a collapsing building

Fear Factor:
Time to Death:

Why is this one even on the list? It is largely because most people are either naturally terrified of heights or possess some form of claustrophobia. If you suffer from both, then being in the World Trade center on September 11, 2001 would have been your very worst nightmare. It wouldn’t be so bad if you were inside the building while it free fell to the ground. It would’ve been much worse if you were inside one of the elevators as a firefighter going up.

The reason why this is a horrific way to die is that being inside a collapsing building is actually more terrifying than being in a powerful earthquake. The combination of the free fall and the encapsulating darkness combine to bring about a kind of panic that is so intense that the amount of adrenaline pumped into your blood at once would give you an instant heart attack.

Some of the people who died during 9/11 were killed by their own fear of death long before several hundred tonnes of steel and concrete came down on top of them. Free falling nearly 1,000 feet in a tight, closed space brings about an intense, unsatiated desire to escape, that may ultimately incite an intense burning sensation all over the skin as a morbid terror sets in.

Imagine riding on a roller coaster while trapped inside a portable lavatory. You can’t see outside, so your imagination runs wild with all kids of horrific ideas. You can only hear the thundering noise and feel the centrifugal force of falling at an incredible rate. Roller coasters are not as frightening, since patrons can see the falls before they actually experience them.

The people who jumped out the windows of the World Trade Centre were actually sparing themselves this horrific death by being the instigator of their own free fall. They knew they had no chance, but at least they weren’t trapped inside and could see where they were falling. That futile sense of control mitigated the claustrophobic terror of being trapped inside.

Those who stayed behind however, were at the mercy of gravity. Not only would they be falling from that height, but they would be falling at the same speed of the concrete floors pancaking as the tower imploded. Their free fall was much faster than if they had jumped out. Thankfully, most of them never lived to experience all that G-force all the way to the ground.

My blood curdles just thinking about the terrifying physics of it.

09. Airplane crash

Pain Incurred:
Fear Factor:
Time to Death:
Suffering Involved:

Aeroplane Crash - India

You might be wondering why dying in an Airplane disaster ranks this high on the list. I’ll tell you in a bit, but first I need to clear up something for you: If a passenger jet comes apart at 37,000 feet, the loss of cabin pressure will cause many passengers to pass out (hence the oxygen masks). Death comes so fast that most will not feel it. De-pressurization kills quickly.

I won’t tell you that your head explodes due to the massive change in air pressure at that height. But if you are flying at that altitude and the aircraft suddenly comes apart, the air will get so thin so quickly, it would cause all the air in your lungs to escape at once as the thin air creates a near instant vacuum. Your lungs would collapse like a balloon being rapidly deflated.

You would lose consciousness before any other law of physics takes a physical toll on your body. You can’t exactly take a deep breath when there is no air to breathe. After your lungs collapse, almost everyone on the flight would suffer the worst form of decompression sickness to hit an adult. You would be dead within minutes. That would be considered a merciful death.

So why does dying in an airplane crash rank this high? You have pretty good odds of surviving a collapsed building. You can even survive extreme heat, most animal attacks, severe injury and human malevolence with simple common sense. You can mitigate against most diseases. Comparatively, the odds of actually surviving an airplane crash are extremely low. Here’s why:

Most people who die in air disasters are killed by the incredible speed on impact — not the impact itself. The massive deceleration that occurs when hitting the ground at 600 miles per hour would rupture the vital organs of most adults, fatally injure most small children or at the least, cause such massive brain trauma that surviving intact would be practically irrelevant. That’s why you are told to assume the crash position before impact. It is to save your brain.

In those rare cases with survivors, it is usually where people are ejected from their seats by the violence of the impact and so their bones don’t absorb the ultra violent impact vibrations that rip the craft to pieces. Survivors are usually those sitting next to windows or emergency exits, who are usually ejected through openings in the fuselage when it ruptures on impact.

However, this type of survival is highly improbable, since it really depends on how the plane impacts the ground. A nose first impact means certain death for everyone on board since you will be lurching forward towards the point of impact. A belly first impact while falling straight down (for example if the craft loses its tail aileron) also spells certain death for all on board.

That would be the same as jumping out of a skyscraper.

So if that highly improbable survival tactic sounds too extreme for you, know that you will probably die due to the rapid, accelerated height change long before you hit the ground. You will be falling so fast, that centripetal forces will flood your brain with blood, causing you an instant stroke or drain your lungs of air, blacking you out before you suffer any impact trauma.

If you are in a sufficiently large aircraft, because of the sheer weight of the machine, if you are strapped inside while it falls from the sky at terminal velocity, you will likely die several times in a dozen different ways long before you hit the ground. Either way, just pray that you don’t survive impact while still inside, as jet fuel is extremely flammable. Nothing burns like jet fuel — especially if you’re still strapped into your seat. If it helps, try to avoid these deadly aircraft.

08. Severe Injury

Pain Incurred:
Fear Factor:
Time to Death:
Suffering Involved:

Severe Injury - Car Bomb

Receiving a deadly wound is likely to be very painful. However, if the injury doesn’t kill you outright, your body will quickly go into shock as your brain is overloaded with electrical pain signals. Severe injuries (like those received during an accident) are only painful for a while, and then you’ll start to fall asleep. This is the body’s automatic shut down procedure when one has lost enough blood to rob the brain of the necessary oxygen for it to operate properly.

In fact, if you’re injured such that you lose a limb, it’s not the pain you should be worried about — it’s bleeding to death. If you have been severely injured such that the femoral (inner thigh), brachial (upper hand), radial or ulnar (lower hand) or carotid arteries are severed, you will likely have a fairly painless, but quick death as blood gushes out with your oxygen supply.

Contrary to popular belief, dying from a severe injury is not as bad as it looks. Severe bleeding usually takes the sting out of pain, but thinking will become a challenge. The sweet release of sleep will feel so appealing that you’ll be hard pressed to resist the urge as doctors try to save your life. If the injury is severe enough to be fatal, the pain will be fairly minimal.

If it’s a head injury, the massive trauma you experience quickly gives way to a sensation of falling asleep. That’s why putting a gun to your head is by far the most humane way to commit suicide (not that I’m recommending that you do, of course). Since your brain doesn’t have any pain receptors, the only thing you’ll feel is a great thud, and a searing white flash.

The thud is the depressurization of your skull by the super sonic bullet opening up your head. You will not feel the bullet entering your head. That’s what the bright white flash is about. That light is caused by every synapse in the path of the bullet being ruptured at once. They all fire off an electrical signal simultaneously overloading your nervous system with useless data.

It would feel like a thousand people scratching their finger nails on a chalkboard all at once. But it will only last for a fraction of a second just before a sensation of falling quickly sets in. It will feel exactly like those nightmares you have about falling forever. It is triggered by losing consciousness in an awake state, which is why out of body experiences abound in this state.

If the bullet doesn’t kill you instantly, you will likely feel the electricity leaving your body as all of your memories begin to unravel at once. This is happening because the closed electrical circuit in your brain that keeps your memories intact has now been compromised. You will no longer be able to rationally differentiate between your awake states and your dream states.

Your conscious and subconscious mind will now join forces to give you one last show, replaying every electrical pattern stored in your head. Some near death survivors have even reported seeing these images play out backwards, from the moment they were near death towards their earliest childhood memories. If true, then that’s got to be one heck of a movie.

At this point, some people have out of body experiences where they either go to heaven or hell, meet Allah, Jesus, Jehovah or some other religious icon. These things are not actually happening. That’s just your brain granting you your last wish. You’re having your last dream. You’d be seeing what many schizophrenics experience daily just before passing out for good.

Next: Contemplating Death Pt. 2 of 3 — Mosquitoes, Tigers & Jellyfish

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

  1. Tracy
    July 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Just wondering how you lost your faith, as I’m a Christian and have been struggling with doubts which servere depression exacerbates.

    • July 21, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      A detailed synopsis of how I lost my faith can be read here.

  2. Woman
    April 20, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Well. You were not kidding when you said that this might get a little gruesome and morbid.

    Your “Life Needs Death” section is bang on the head where because people are not kicking the bucket till long after either their brains or the bodies stop working and families leave them hooked up to machines… “It is no longer about the survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the richest, or at the least, those with the best health insurance.” This in itself says it all.

    I came home to Canada from China, and I watched as each of my grandparents lost their mental facilities with various forms of ailments that affect the elderly. It was so terrible. They were still physically all there. But they were empty. Personally; I think it is wrong to hold onto someone when this happens because of our own personal fear of not knowing what comes next.

    Very insightful post you have here with lots of food for thought. Thank-you for it.

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