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

Contemplating Death (3 of 3)

The fear of death is worse than death itself.


Tsunami Drowning Victims

Most people will tell you that the worst way to die is by fire. This is far from the truth. Death by fire may be the most excruciatingly painful way to go out. However, burning to death is relatively quick, is not quite as frightening nor does it incur as much suffering as the top three covered in this post. Some of these will surprise you. This because while most of us have felt first hand what death by fire might be like (how many of us have held our hand over a flame?) the top three worst ways to die require long exposure and very extraordinary circumstances.

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.

03. Drowning

Pain Threshold:
Fear Factor:
Time to Death:
Total Suffering:

I know what you’re thinking: How could drowning to death possibly rank in the top three? The reason why death by watery asphyxiation is so intensely painful is because before you die, your body will go into panic mode as it tries to recover its oxygen deficit. There is no panic mode to resist when being burned to death. At least you’d have some sense of control then.

Allow me to explain:

Try to hold your head under water for as long as you can. Your natural instinct is to hold your breath. Now try keeping your head under water when your brain starts to tingle with that sharp pain signifying that its oxygen stores are depleting rapidly. What you will find is that there is a threshold that you cannot surpass. Your body’s automatic reflex will force you up.

This is your panic mode setting in. It is what saves your life. Now imagine if you fell off a boat and you sank some 20 feet below the surface and the water current is moving. You can’t swim your way upwards because with enough oxygen depletion under water, you quickly lose your sense of orientation. In other words, you won’t know which way is up out of the water.

While that deep, you want to break the water surface before your panic mode sets in. If you don’t, you will find yourself fighting furiously to suppress the involuntary muscle convulsions now rapidly pulsing your lungs, forcing you to breath — but you cannot breathe. You are deep under water. Not only that, you are deep in salty, poisonous sea water filled with all of the decaying matter of a thousand dead things and that may also have microscopic jellyfish in it.

Sooner or later, your muscle convulsions will win and you will inhale a huge gulp of stinging salt water. You will vomit and inhale several times, rupturing your lungs in the process as your stomach acids come up and are inhaled into your lungs. If you’ve never had pneumonia, you will have no idea of how painful that is. This may happen several times before one blacks out.

Drowning in a swimming pool is less harsh. However, the water in your swimming pool has copious amounts of chemicals to kill bacteria. Ingesting a large gulp into the lungs will knock one out faster than salt water would, because of the high chlorine content. However, the painful inhale-vomit-exhale process will remain the same. At that point, one begs for death to come, since they lose control over the body’s misfired defense system that’s now killing itself.

People think that it is preferable to drown than to burn to death. The rationale is that burning creates permanent damage. What they fail to factor in is that most people don’t actually burn to death. The heat or smoke takes them out long before the flames do. One basically chokes to death on thick, hot air. However, choking to death on dirty water is much more terrifying. Because water is heavier than air, the lungs struggle more, worsening the suffering involved.

This is why I feel a special sense of pain for the over 24,000 people who were drowned in the blackened 30 feet high walls of dirty sea water that swept ashore in Sendai, Japan. Their deaths were multiplied by 24,000 heaving, vomiting throes of acute lung destruction. I can’t imagine what it is like to inhale water thick with dirt, concrete, splintered wood and poison.

Some part of me hopes these people died of a stroke while being ravaged by the demonic watery flow of death, holding their breath long enough to win out over their body’s natural convulsions to breathe. I wish they died because of a physical concussion that would knock them unconscious when their buildings collapsed, sparing them the suffering of such a death.

Sadly, I know none of this is likely to be the case.

02. Extreme Cold

Pain Threshold:
Fear Factor:
Time to Death:
Total Suffering:

Death scene from Titanic (1997)

I hear a lot of people living in the tropics declare that there’s no way that they could have drowned if they were on the Titanic. They would simply jump off the ship, into the water, and swim to the nearest ice berg, where they would sit it out and wait for a ship to arrive. Silly Caribbean islanders. They’ve no idea how painful cold can be. So I decided to educate them.

Are you familiar with the pain test? I got together a group of about 8 individuals. Two of them were Caucasians of German descent. There were four males and four females. I asked them to fill a bucket with ice cold water and fill it to the top with ice. Then I asked them to place one hand into the bucket and hold it there for at least fifteen minutes. You know this test, right?

You can try it yourself.

Within 5 minutes, all of the females dropped out of the test — including one of the Germans. This dispels all rumors about women having a higher pain threshold. Within 8 minutes, all of the Caribbean and black Americans dropped out. That’s understandable. They’re used to warmer climates. The German guy was in excruciating pain by minute ten before he too caved.

None of the people who tried the test could keep their hands in the ice cold water for the full fifteen minutes — not even the Germans who are quite familiar with the cold. The longest person held out for just over 12 minutes. The pain they endured was brutal. I know, because I’ve tried it myself. I didn’t last 5 minutes. Maybe that’s why China’s -3 totally kicked my ass. My hat goes off to you Canadians going to school in -20° weather in December. That is crazy.

The difference between the two temperature extremes is that the pain from being burned is sudden and intense but it destroys tissue quickly. The pain from cold creeps up on you as your body adjusts to the temperature drop. However, unlike a flame, freezing temperatures don’t destroy muscle tissue instantly. Freezing to death is a long, protracted, painful process.

The pain of freezing is actually worse than the pain of being burned alive because it is a much longer, more sustained onslaught. Death by fire is much quicker. We only believe that burning to death is worse because of the instantaneous tissue damage. But I promise you, if you wish to commit suicide, you would be far better off jumping into a lava pool than an ocean at -12°.

If you can imagine the standard pain test replicated for every ounce of tissue in your body, then you will know how painful it is to actually freeze to death. So there is none of this foolishness about jumping off the Titanic and swimming to the nearest iceberg. The water is easily -12° Celsius. It isn’t frozen because it is denser and more expansive than fresh water.

The minute a human body dives below the water surface off a sinking ship into the insanely frigid, iceberg laden waters, every ounce of heat would have escaped from that brain in the 4 seconds it takes one to reorient themselves in the sub zero waters. The hypothermia would render you unconscious before you could swim. You would have drowned before resurfacing. That’s why Leonardo DiCaprio’s death scene at the end of Titanic (1997) is laughable at best.

Even if you managed to swim to an iceberg nearby (this is impossible, but I’ll bite), you can’t just sit on it and wait until help arrives. That is a block of ice the size of a small island. There is less heat in that ice island than there is in your body. So whatever heat lives in you would escape into the block of ice. You’d suffer the world’s worst instance of frost bite before dying.

Don’t take my word for it. Go find a block of ice that is big enough to sit on and try holding out on it for three days inside a freezer in just an overcoat. The intense pain searing up the back of your spine as your blood curdles is the first sign that your flesh is being destroyed. You will become indiscernible from a piece of frozen meat before any help could arrive to rescue you.

At this point, I have to mention that people from warmer climates would certainly suffer greater from extreme temperature drops. However, below a certain temperature, the instant death effect is pretty much the same for all people. So while it’s fair to say that Europeans would tolerate low temperatures better than say Sub Saharan Africans, even they have limits.

01. Starving / Dehydration

Pain Threshold:
Fear Factor:
Time to Death:
Total Suffering:

Vulture Stalks a Starving Child

Have you ever gone on a fast (especially for religious reasons)? If so, you will know that the worst part of going on a fast is the first 24 hours. After that, the body automatically starts to scale back its metabolism. The obvious exception are those who suffer from a little known condition called idiopathic postprandial syndrome (commonly confused with hypoglycaemia).

People like that should not go on fast. Ever. (Hit the links to find out why). More importantly, death via starvation is only worsened by dehydration. The challenge with dying this way is that there is a point of no return. If you’ve been without food or water for more than 60 days, you will be in so much anguish that even trying to get any sleep becomes virtually impossible.

But that’s not the worst part.

In addition to the anguish of a slow. agonizing death, the body’s internal juices will start to digest the inner walls of the stomach, making self resuscitation through normal eating a deadly feat. Your stomach walls will be too delicate to handle hard food or beverage after prolonged starvation. They will rupture the instant you swallow anything harder than water.

Because food provides energy, a lack of food means a lack of energy. This goes double for the cells in your body. You know that sensation when your leg falls asleep from sitting with poor posture for too long? The prickly sensation is a result of waste materials poisoning your cells because of poor circulation. Imagine that all over your body — 24 hours, day in and day out.

That is still not the worst part.

The worst part is that you will become so weak, that your body will not be able to defend itself against common pests. Flies will swarm your body and lay their larvae in your nose, your ears, your eyes, your navel and in some cases, in other private female areas. No relatively warm crevice will be safe. Common parasites will then start to eat you alive from the inside.

Perhaps the very worst of it all, is that some of those starving to death in war torn regions of Africa have been known to give off the rather putrid smell of a rotting corpse long before they actually lose consciousness. There have been some reports of hyenas and other wild animals running off the with semi-decomposed bodies of starving children that are not quite dead yet. Try to imagine watching yourself being eaten alive and being too weak to even express pain.

I have read reports of some starvation victims having their eyes picked out by vultures while they lay dying inside their tents. These people are still alive when nature’s natural garbage collection process kicks in. That, dear friends is perhaps the absolute worst way to die. It robs you of your humanity, your dignity and your life, long before starvation finally snuffs you out.

The shocking reality is that this happens everyday somewhere in the world — particularly in Africa. In the photo featured above, a young Sudanese girl collapses on her way back to her tent. She isn’t dead yet. The smell from her rotting body however, attracts the attention of a vulture who lurks nearby in the background. The photographer who took the photo was under strict instructions not to intervene due to the risk of incurring diseases such as leprosy.

The photographer chased away the vulture, but he couldn’t pick up the girl and take her back to her mother. He left Sudan days later and brought the plight of these starving victims to the United States and the rest of the developed world. No one knows if the girl ever survived. It is quite likely that these vultures returned and finally finished what they were about to start.

Years later, stricken with grief, the photographer committed suicide.

Reality Check

It is highly unlikely that most of you reading this will die in any of the ways listed here. Most of you will grow old and pass away of something that you would have survived if you were younger. If any of you fall on this list, it will more likely be because of disease. Hopefully none of you are suffering from a degenerative hereditary disease. If so, my heart goes out to you.

When I asked a couple of people about the worst ways to die, most people think about just the pain factor involved. Most of them completely forget the psychological factor. If you poll them, they’ll tell you that they are fearful of death. But it’s not death you should be worried about — it’s dying. As it turns out, the fear of death is substantially worse than death itself.

I don’t fear death. I fear the process of dying. I fear the suffering involved. I fear that the last moments just before the sweet release of death will be the worst part of my life. That’s the reason why we do that which is within our realm of control to ensure that our lives are healthy, rich and fulfilling. Of course, one could get hit by a bus. Then it wouldn’t even matter.

Religious Repercussions

The inevitability of death is intriguing because there’s just no way to see beyond that. Some people choose to believe that life continues there after. The science doesn’t agree with that deduction since it’s clear from a neurological and psychological perspective how people can correlate going to heaven after death. The brain releases enough endorphins to give you a massive high. Whatever you see after that is your beliefs being articulated by a dying brain.

This is not dissimilar from how we only dream about things that we are familiar with. On your way out, those beliefs play out in your mind like an “in case of death, push play” trigger. Isn’t that the sweetest way to go out of this life? Well, that depends on what you believe. For even if you believe in God and you were a bad person, your guilt will trigger your imagination of what going to hell will be like. The result is the same if you rejected your faith amidst guilt:

Youll have one last nightmare about going to hell.

However, people who were not sensitized about damnation oriented faiths will not have such an experience. The mind cannot conjure up that which it does not know. So for the subset of people in the world who grew up without Christian indoctrination, their deaths will likely be far more pleasant, oriented around their past family and life experiences, if they were such.

Irrespective of your spiritual beliefs, know this: It is appointed to man once to live and once to die. Everything else is subjective conjecture. Ensure that the life you live surpasses the death you receive. For at least in those last moments when the last flicker of electricity leaves your brain on a wave of endorphins, you will know that you enjoyed it all and you have no regrets.

No regrets.

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

  1. William Burton III
    February 16, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    Interesting blog,.. no offense — but the “freezing to death”.. aka: Dying of hypothermia is not NEARLY as painful as you point out. Why? Because it isn’t like the cold/ice water pain test used on mythbusters (seen by many),.. and in other studies for pain threshhold testing. Is it painful initially? Yes, of course. Your skin is literally freezing,.. that hurts! However, in extreme cold (not in water) but let’s say in Vostok, Antarctica.. at -80F you were to wander out and get lost. You could stay alive for a while by doing various things to keep warm (but you would not want to sweat).. but that’s irrelevant.

    The cold , as many have experienced before in say -10F temperatures or lower — Is biting, uncomfortable, but you will become “numb” at a stage. Though the bigger point is as hypothermia begins to set in, as your core body temperature starts to drop several degrees you will become sleepy, confused, and will not be acutely aware of agonizing pain. Once that threshold is crossed into hypothermia you are gone (without help).. you will progressively become more and more ataxic, confused, muscles will stiffen, and you will essentially fall/lie down and go to sleep (to your death). It can be thought of as a a somewhat similar situation to being in shock. Sticking your hand/arm etc into ice water for an hour would be more painful than going out and laying down in -80 or colder temperatures.. basically initially shivering uncontrollably,.. with some pain but nothing you couldn’t withstand until you start to become mentally discognizant, confused, etc.. at that point you would feel as if you were on a very disorientating drug that is becoming stronger and stronger and eventually you would shutdown and die.

  2. Carol Crunkhorn
    February 2, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    Yes, I still think about some horrors, like the child and the vulture in the photograph and the dreadful tsunami in Japan. I have a recurring vision of the dog, seen from above, running this way and that, trying to avoid the inevitable; somehow symbolising the awful fear and what would follow for all who died in that terrible disaster. We can’t avoid disasters or accidents, but we should talk about death more. It is a huge part of life after all and those lucky enough to live in a society where medical help is available, should be allowed to choose where, when and how they die. We have the means to grant people a peaceful death and we should give them that right. We have control of our lives and we should have control of our deaths, when that is possible.

  3. Tracy
    July 18, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    WOW! I was blown away by the 3 parts of contemplating death as I’ve always had a fear of not existing anymore (even though now a believer). It was certainly interesting to read what you have put together even if graphic/morbid. But if it turns out that after death there’s nothing, then what was the point of it all. What was the point of all the experiences and memories and actions and thoughts etc, if in the end, there’s nothing?

    • July 21, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      That question will be answered in a later post. Thanks for the comment!

    • ScooterGirl
      July 9, 2017 at 11:23 am

      Because we are sentient humans think there must be a point to our lives and there is but it’s only the same as everything else from a tree to a worm to a lion: the continuation of the species. That is, literally, the only reason for our existence. Anyone who has no children, like myself, has failed in their reason for being. Luckily, the universe doesn’t give a rip.

  4. goldfishka
    May 11, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Thank you, very interesting site.

  5. Big A
    May 5, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Wow. Um, interesting. Your thought process is an unique one indeed Xenocrates. Most people have reluctantly thought about death; Most people have even thought about the worst way to go, at some point. But most people don’t ever consider taking on the prospect of writing about death or suffering and their qualities. What really shocks me about your series, is your ability to elucidate these ideas with a frightening and eerie exactness. It was an intriguing read nonetheless, as your writing tends to be. All the pictures are pretty morbid, but the last picture is especially graphic. I’ve seen it before and the picture mortified me then as it did just now upon seeing it. A friend showed it to me some years ago, and he said it was the first time he cried since his tribal circumcision over 10 years ago. If that psychological pain can bring anguish to a man who’s witnessed and experienced so much suffering, I wonder what it does to or for you. I’m wondering why you are able to research and write about this topic so freely. I think it takes either a very strong mind to broach this subject the way you have or a very afflicted mind. Having followed your blog for some time, I would bet it was the former, are you ok man lol?

    • May 5, 2011 at 6:48 am

      LOL — I’m quite fine, Big A. I just have a very curious mind.

      My curiosity doesn’t appear to flinch at the onset of morbidity. I discovered this a very long time ago while I was still a child. It was when I had my first encounter with a corpse. It was at a funeral parlour. I stared at it intensely for several minutes, deliberately ignoring my mind’s loud internal warning to run away. I was half expecting the dead body to wake up, or at least, turn and look at me (as one would expect in a horror film) but it never did. That’s when I discovered that facing your fears head on is usually intensely rewarding. Why? Because the fear goes away.

      This is one of the reasons why when my dad used to preach about hell in church, I was only momentarily frightened. After I looked up the word “hell”, I discovered that it was the Jewish word for “rubbish dump”. Several cultural investigations later, and I realized that much of the Christian “fire and brimstone” doctrine relied on fear mongering as a primary element of its marketing campaign. After debunking those fears, the rest is history.

      So I quickly realized that anything that would normally bring me fear, I could research it and then the fear of it would normally disappear. I had inadvertently discovered a positive corelation between knowledge and its ability to dispel fear (long before hearing the popular adage describing it as such).

      That’s why I appear to know so much about many subjects — I was a very fearful child.

      So now the only thing that frightens me is mother nature. I understand it far better now than I did as a child, but the sheer magnitude of it doesn’t bring me any relief. The recent events in Japan only underscored this even more. That’s when I realized that it was easy to stare the topic of death in the face.

      That’s when I also realized that it wasn’t death that I feared (since it is pretty much the same as falling into a deep sleep) but the dying process that comes immediately before it. I only fear mother nature because dying isn’t pleasant. (And when I say “mother nature”, I’m actually referring to the universal laws of physics).

      I soon realized Big A, that fear is only a catch all survival mechanism. It only exists in the mind, not in the world. Therefore it can be managed to accomplish some incredible things. By contrast, my girlfriend has a morbid fear of large four legged animals (horses, bulls, etc.) and large expanses of water — yet she is not frightened of rabid wolves and vicious pitbulls. Curious isn’t it?


      That’s why I don’t fear death. Fear is a funny little thing. It warns us so intently about death that if you think about it, you’ll realize that much of our fear is based on fear itself.

      Death by contrast is a walk in the park. 🙂

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