Is there a worst way to die?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. Josh and Chuck here, a couple of staff writers at HowStuffWorks.com! How's it going, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: It's going good, Josh.

Josh Clark: So Chuck, I hate to tell you this, but there are people who are setting themselves on fire, all over India right now. Have you heard anything about this?

Chuck Bryant: Right now?

Josh Clark: Possibly. Lately, by right now, I mean lately.

Chuck Bryant: No, I didn't know that.

Josh Clark: It's becoming something of a widespread trend, actually, terribly. I read about one guy who's a tea vendor. He sells tea like you buy a hotdog on the streets of New York. This guy just sells tea. And apparently, he fell in the bad graces of a local representative of the local government and the guy was kind of being abused by this guy, the government official.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And in retaliation, he doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire in front of the guy's house.

Chuck Bryant: That will show him.

Josh Clark: Yeah, pretty much. Now the guy lived, but he has burns over 95 percent of his body.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: And at this point, you kind of wonder, which is worse.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That sounds like a terrible way to go.

Josh Clark: And the whole thing kind of reminded me of an article I'd written. It's called, "Is there a worst way to die."

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's a good one.

Josh Clark: I love this article. It was really interesting to write.

Chuck Bryant: I bet.

Josh Clark: I talked to a funeral director. I talked to an ER doctor. And I also spoke with a guy who is the director of the Ernest Becker foundation, and we'll talk about that in a minute. But because there's not quantifiable way to say yes, there's definitely a worst way to die and here it is. It's all subjective.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And even worse, there weren't any nationally recognized polls out there. I actually contacted Gallup to find out if they'd ever asked that question.

Chuck Bryant: Did you request a poll, or no?

Josh Clark: No, I wanted to find out what the data was, if they'd ever taken that poll and they said that they never had. I found one that was pretty close, a 1991 Gallup poll that was about fear of dying, not the worst way to die. And astoundingly, only 25 percent of the people polled said that they were afraid to die.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I think a really logical follow-up question would have been how often do you actually think about your own death.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Maybe we should have conducted our own poll.

Josh Clark: Maybe we will. We will. We'll get it up on the site in no time.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Instead of quiz corner, fear of death corner.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But while I was researching it, I came across some impromptu polls about the worst way to die. Immolation usually ranks up pretty high.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I would say so.

Josh Clark: Burning to death, not good.

Chuck Bryant: Not good at all. I would say drowning is probably up there, too.

Josh Clark: Drowning is up there, too. Yeah, they're usually interchangeable at the top. What's your worst way to die?

Chuck Bryant: Boy, I don't know if I could say a worst method of death, but I think anything where I died alone would be the worst way.

Josh Clark: It is very funny that you bring that up because I was doing extra research for this podcast. And there was a British poll from April, this past April, and the majority of the respondents said that their worst death was dying alone.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, like Isaac Hayes, God rest his soul, he just past a few days ago. And I think they found him in his home gym with the treadmill going. And something as mundane as that, it seems like the most depressing way to go. You're lying there. Your treadmill is still alive right next to you, and there you are.

Josh Clark: Right, surrounded by no one.

Chuck Bryant: Right or Elvis Presley as you know I have Elvis on the brain after writing about Graceland. And Elvis, famously, died in his bathroom, reading a book. And no one found him for hours. So he was just laying there in his bathroom.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So the second worst aspect of death that people came up with was not enough access to pain relief.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which is a big thing too? Basically, there's a really good way to answer this question by changing the wording. Is there a best way to die?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I think you would find across the board, dying in your sleep.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Would probably be the best, most highly rated way to go. People don't want to feel pain.

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: People don't want to be afraid or alone.

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: My worst death kind of combines all these, except for the pain part. I don't think pain would be involved. Plane crash!

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I'm flying to Malta a week or so from now.

Chuck Bryant: Good luck, buddy.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I'm not looking forward to the plane ride. My big problem with dying in a plane crash is if you're at 30,000 feet or something like that, it doesn't happen instantaneously.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I know where you're headed here.

Josh Clark: There's probably a minute or two, headed straight to earth at like 800 miles an hour.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But even that takes a minute, maybe two, maybe three, depending on how high up you are. And buddy, you're totally aware of what's going on the whole time.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: You've got a solid minute to three minutes to think about hey, I'm going to die.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and the panic and the hysteria, I would say with everyone on the plane, it's not if you were by yourself it would be bad enough, but you have hundreds of strangers that you were probably annoyed with just moments earlier for one reason or another and you're all going through this.

Josh Clark: At least you're not going to die alone.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, well, that's a good point.

Josh Clark: If George Gallup asked the people on a plane that was going down if they feared death, I'm pretty sure that the percentages would skyrocket.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That would have to be a hastily performed poll.

Josh Clark: Exactly. So you know basically, Chuck, our approach to death, our fear of death, in some theorist's eyes, is the result of a kind of sanitizing of death.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Of our desire to not look death in the face, not think about death.

Chuck Bryant: Which brings you back to Becker, correct?

Josh Clark: Becker and thanatology.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: A lot of Ernest Becker's views, his whole field was called the psychology of death, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And in Becker's opinion, culture, every aspect of culture, from our Lazy Boy recliners to Nascar to whiskey to Guitar Hero to climbing the corporate ladder, whatever it is, it all servers to distract us from thinking about our own mortality.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So culture has been created to distract us, so we can throw ourselves into it. That's Becker's stance. The problem is, in Becker's opinion, he died many, many years ago at age 49, sadly.

Chuck Bryant: I wonder if he saw that one coming.

Josh Clark: I don't know, but I'll bet you if there was ever a human walking the earth who was cool with it, it was Becker, and he died of cancer too, so he knew it was coming. But in Becker's opinion, we know that death is coming. We're distracting ourselves. So the unconscious mind has to find an outlet somewhere. And usually, that outlet is violence or aggression or war.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So in Becker's opinion, if we'd all just go ahead and accept the fact that we are going to die some day and we don't know when it's going to happen or how it's going to happen, we'd all be a lot better off. We'd all basically chill.

Chuck Bryant: Right. And I know along those same lines of how we insulate ourselves from death is how there's not as many open casket funerals these days. I know back in the olden times, as they say -

Josh Clark: Or as recent as the 19th Century.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, people would sit up with the dead. I know that's a southern tradition where you would, literally, have the body in your house or wherever they died and the family's just hanging out.

Josh Clark: Yeah, for days on end. They'd eat around it.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, eating.

Josh Clark: One of the points of that was to socialize children to death.

Chuck Bryant: Public viewings.

Josh Clark: And plus, another aspect of it was usually it was in the home because most people died in the home.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Because modern medicine just kind of went good luck with that pal, see you in hell, that kind of thing. And now days - you know in 1900, the average life expectancy was like 49 years old.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: In 2008, it's like 77, creeping up on 78 if it's not there already. So that extra 20, almost 30 years has really kind of strung us out.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: We are really interested in squeezing every last minute out of it, even sadly, beyond the time when the quality of life has diminished.

Chuck Bryant: So what are you saying?

Josh Clark: I'm saying we have all these machines to keep us alive, to breathe for us.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: We know that they're out there, so we have thrown ourselves even further into this denial of death.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: As Becker called it.

Chuck Bryant: So the very things that keep us alive are distracting us from the obvious.

Josh Clark: Pretty much.

Chuck Bryant: And the inevitable.

Josh Clark: And there was another aspect, when you brought up 19th Century that I found really interesting. There's a trend. Have you ever heard of bereavement photography?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that was - have you seen the movie, The Assassination of Jesse James?

Josh Clark: I have not, no.

Chuck Bryant: He was famously photographed in his casket and the whole town came out. They had him on a block of ice. The whole town came and viewed the body and had their picture made with - picture made, we're from the south.

Josh Clark: Picture made, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: They had their picture made with the body of Jesse James. Is that what you're talking about?

Josh Clark: Yeah. It's a photograph of a dead person. Usually though, it was of a loved one. And oftentimes, they'd be on a couch, sitting up, looking like they were sleeping or in bed, looking like they were sleeping. Sometimes their eyes were propped open to make it look like they were awake.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's really odd.

Josh Clark: It was kind of odd, but it actually still continues today. There is bereavement photography. Usually it's used by parents whose child was stillborn or died at a very, very young age and this will be the only photo that they ever have of them.

Chuck Bryant: Is this in the United States, mainly?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: You don't want to say it's odd because clearly they're getting something from it. I'm sure it poses or it creates a sense of catharsis or finality to it. And plus, they can say well this is what my baby looked like for as short a time as he or she was on earth.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And it's very sad. But I imagine that you can get something out of it.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Who am I to judge ?

Josh Clark: Exactly. And photography, in general, kind of has, since it was created, has always had kind of this fascination with death, like bereavement photography or outlaws, even Pablo Escobar, there's that famous photo of him all bloated and dead on that rooftop in Medellin.

Chuck Bryant: Right or the famous photo of Lizzie Borden's father kind of sideways on the couch.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: His face mashed in.

Josh Clark: And what is it about us humans that wish that that photo wasn't so grainy?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: That you could make it out a little more.

Chuck Bryant: I know.

Josh Clark: But at the same time, it kind of lets the imagination run wild. We are a sick, sick, twisted species. We're afraid of our own death, and yet we love morbid photography.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Of dead people.

Chuck Bryant: Or at least you and I. We don't want to speak for everyone.

Josh Clark: I guess we shouldn't speak for the rest of humanity. Although, I'd say we're fairly typical. But back to the photography part! There's this really cool exhibit by a German photographer names Walter Schels, right. And he did this series called life before death. And what he did was he went and visited people who were terminally ill, spent the last couple of days of their lives with them. Took series of photographs of them, got the one he was looking for and then arranged to take another photo of them right after they died. And he juxtaposed them, one right next to the other. And there's actually a really great spread on the Guardian's UK site.

Chuck Bryant: What did he find? Was it uplifting or was it depressing?

Josh Clark: It's very subjective. It's death. There's no objectivity with death. We have no idea what's coming after this. It's all subjective. You're scared of it. You're not scared of it, whatever. So it's definitely one of those things where you're going to take what you want out of it. And some are more startling than others. But it's oddly comforting.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I'd like to see that.

Josh Clark: You can see it on the Guardian site. But first, don't forget to go to HowStuffWorks.com and read, "Is there a worst way to die." It's a pretty cool article, if I do say so myself. And find out which article makes me pretty excited, but scares the hell out of Chuck. So Chuck, I know this article scares the hell out of you. I like it. Tell us about it.

Chuck Bryant: What's the missyplicity project?

Josh Clark: You want to tell everybody?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it has to do with dog cloning, cloning your pets. And it kind of creeps me out. I know you love your dogs like I do. Do you want to clone yours? You want to have nine instead of three.

Josh Clark: Well my dogs are never going to die, not if I have anything to say about it. But if they do, I feel comforted, knowing that I can bring them back.

Chuck Bryant: Well, you better get a second job, buddy. It ain't cheap.

Josh Clark: No, I know it's not. I'm saving up already, actually. It's like put kids through college or bring dogs back to life. And we want to give a shout out to HowStuffWorks freelancer, Julia Layton for creating a really cool article. You can check it out on HowStuffWorks.com. Just type in, "What's the missyplicity project."Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the HowStuffWorks.com home page. For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an e-mail to Podcast@HowStuffWorks.com.