10 Absolute Worst Ways To Die According To Science

Most people don’t really like to think about it, but we’ve all got to die someday.

As with most things, some ways are better than others. The reality is that, if you’re very lucky, you’ll end your days in bed, surrounded by your loved ones, off your head on painkillers. The joy of modern medicine is that we can now even end our lives in relative comfort.

This is one end of the spectrum and, sadly, the rest of it isn’t quite so pleasant. It’s obviously pretty difficult to study the sensation of death, seeing as the majority of people who have experienced it are currently unavailable for comment.

This hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to extrapolate from what we know about the limitations of the human body and our tolerance for pain, injury and deprivation (they’re a cheery bunch).

So, in the unlikely event that you get a choice in the matter, what are the worst ways to shuffle off the mortal coil?

10. Starvation


It may not surprise you to learn that starving to death is no picnic (no pun intended).

It’s actually relatively difficult to starve to death, and is in no way a quick end. Your body has evolved over millions of years to weather periods of feast and famine, and will make adjustments accordingly if the food stops rolling in. To a certain point anyway.

We all know from Dieting 101 that, when faced with starvation, the body will burn through its fat stores for energy. Once that runs out, it will go for the muscle but, eventually, it’s going to run out of options.

The extreme lack of vitamins and minerals will likely lead to a severely weakened immune system. It might be this, as opposed to exclusively starvation, that eventually finishes you off as you would have little defence against all kinds of diseases.

If an infection doesn’t get you, then you face a period of extreme fatigue and listlessness due to insufficient electrolyte levels, followed by cardiac arrest as a result of tissue degradation (basically, your body starts to metabolise your heart).

You might not even feel hungry during end-stage starvation. Studies have shown that those who are about to die anyway, often from terminal disease, will enter a different kind of starvation mode in which the body just shuts down and switches off the “hunger pangs” that we might expect. This is fine if you’re “ready to go”, but you can bet that most of the people currently starving to death definitely aren’t.

9. Dehydration


We’re always being told to drink more water, and for a very good reason. The human body without water is disastrous.

Your body is around 60% water, this keeps you all nice and squishy, as well as helping blood to flow and clearing dangerous toxins from the body.

As you become more and more dehydrated, cells begin to shrink as the body draws water from them to pump into the bloodstream. This, unfortunately, includes your brain cells, and when these shrink, it’s very bad news.

This prevents them from operating normally, leading to confusion, delirium, headaches and ultimately coma and death as it becomes unable to sustain normal bodily function. As the brain physically shrinks in the skull, the blood vessels attaching it to the cranium can pull away, causing pain and bleeding.

One by one, your organs will begin to shut down. The kidneys will go first and, seeing as they are your body’s filter system, this is bad news. Any waste products that are usually excreted in urine will remain in the body and levels will slowly rise, toxins will begin to build up in the blood and under the skin.

Muscles will cramp painfully and uncontrollably, and organs will begin to shut down as blood volume reduces. In some conditions, the process can last nearly two weeks.

We’ll now take a look at the dark world of capital punishment, but let’s not lose our heads (pun very much intended, thanks).

So, let’s talk about decapitation. One of the favourite soundbites of schoolchildren learning about the Tudors, is that the recently liberated head can sometimes remain conscious for a short time after decapitation.

Horrifyingly, this is probably true. The question is how long.

One detailed report from a Dr. Beaurieux in 1905, who reportedly managed to have something of a chat with a decapitated head, describes:

“The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible […] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions … Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves.”

He repeated this three times, with the head only becoming unresponsive on the third attempt. If this is truly the case then it could be that the head survives for anything up to 30 seconds. Some scientists reckon it’s probably closer to 3-5 seconds, due to the rapid decrease in blood pressure. 3-5 seconds without a body, however, is still 3-5 seconds too long.

This is all if everything goes swimmingly too. Decapitations carried out with an axe all-too-often took multiple blows to sever the head. The execution of Mary Stuart took three blows, during which she let out a horrible groan of pain and (according to some) kept praying. The executioner eventually had to hack the rest off with a knife.

Regardless of how long consciousness lingers, most scientists agree that beheading, no matter how quick and clean, would produce excruciating pain for at least a few seconds.

7. Lethal Injection


In the last 40 years, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the United States has executed almost 1,500 of its criminals with at least another 13 planned for 2016.

Regardless of how barbaric you consider that practice to be, most people tend to agree that our methods are much more humane than all of that messy decapitation and hanging that used to go on. Let’s all have a pat on the back for being so clever and moral.

However, this might not actually be true.

It is now thought that the most common method of execution, the lethal injection, could actually be much more cruel and painful than it looks. There are three elements to a lethal injection, sodium thiopental (to render you unconscious), pancuronium bromide (to paralyse you) and potassium chloride (to kill you).

The thing is that, even though it looks like a medical procedure, the whole thing is virtually unregulated. There are no studies, no trials and no real “standard dose” that would ensure it works properly.

It is thought that many convicts are given a dose of sodium thiopental that is far too low, often the highest dose administered is only two times the lethal dose for a small animal. This means that they might be paralysed, but they’ll still be semi-conscious as the other two ingredients slowly suffocate them and stop their heart – the process of which is extremely painful. Eyewitness reports have included instances in which inmates groan, writhe and even attempt to sit up during the procedure.

So that’s grim, but you could always go for the electric chair, right? Wrong.

6. Electric Chair


In the face of a shortage of lethal injection drugs, the US are thinking of bringing back the old electric chair. This, however, is a terrible way to go.

Even if all goes well, there is no getting around the fact that the inmate is essentially cooked to death.

As the current zaps through the body, the heart stops, the blood boils and the nervous system jams, causing asphyxiation. Bodies will swell up and boiling hot blood will pour out of every orifice – sometimes the eyeballs pop out and flames burst from under the skin. The body temperature is so hot that the flesh cooks and can fall away.

That’s if you’re lucky.

If you’re unlucky, then the voltage might not quite be high enough to kill you, at least not quickly enough. There have been instances where the process has taken up to ten minutes, slow cooking the inmate as opposed to the preferable flash fry. As the current renders them unable to control movement or speech, they will have to just silently cook, still conscious.

With the lethal drugs running out, some states are seriously considering bringing back Old Sparky so as not to fall behind on the whole “killing people” thing. If they must, then they might actually be better off going back to the guillotine.

5. Crucifixion


As far as execution methods go, crucifixion is probably one of the most high-profile, and it’s definitely no barrel of laughs.

Many of us tend to think of it as almost purely symbolic, but the reality is that it was an unbelievably brutal method of torture and execution. Everybody probably has a pretty strong mental image of a crucifixion, but the actual cause of death is less well known.

Although sticking nails through a person’s hands and feet and leaving them on a remote hilltop will probably not do them much good, it is thought that the actual cause of death for most crucified people was actually suffocation.

Initially, when a person is nailed to a cross, they will instinctively try to support their weight on their injured hands and feet, but once the strength gives out in the legs, the arms are pulled from their sockets and the chest hangs down. This makes it incredibly difficult to fully exhale and the carbon dioxide levels in the body will go up and up as they can do little else but take tiny sips of air.

This process can take many hours, even days. In fact, it was considered the kinder practice to break the victim’s legs first so that their period of suffering is shortened.

4. Decompression


In 1983, four divers were inside a decompression chamber on the Byford Dolphin oil rig, when it explosively decompressed. The air pressure went from nine atmospheres to one in less than a second. The damage it wrought on one of the divers was nothing short of catastrophic.

Everything in the thoracic and abdominal regions, including his spine, were forcibly ejected from the body and flung up to 30 feet. His chest, organs and trachea were found scattered about the chamber.

The sudden drop in pressure will have caused the blood to boil and the autopsy found high levels of fat in the blood that had essentially “dropped out” of its dissolved state as it boiled.

The saving grace for the Byford Dolphin incident is that it was extremely quick, which is more than can be said for the Russian Soyuz-11 mission.

As the crew re-entered the atmosphere in 1971, a seal leaked, causing the cabin to depressurise. Any gas trapped in the lungs expands and damages the delicate tissue, particularly if the victims listened to their instinct to hold their breath as the air escapes.

The crew would have felt as though they had been kicked in the chest, unable to draw breath. Bubbles of gases dissolved in the blood will begin to form and travel around the circulatory system, causing extreme pain and obstructing blood flow, they would probably have experienced terrible muscle cramps.

The entire crew were found dead from asphyxiation by the time they made it to the ground.

3. Burning


You know those “would you rather” questions? If somebody gives you the option of burning to death or freezing to death, choose freezing.

The human race has come up with a sickeningly vast array of methods to kill one another with fire, from the classic burnt-at-the-stake style to being roasted alive in the the Brazen Bull. There are then, of course, the people who die in fire by accident. Whilst each has its subtle differences, you can be sure has hellfire itself that none is exactly pleasant.

If you’re lucky, then the toxic fumes from the fire will get you first, and in house fires, up to 75% of people die of carbon monoxide poisoning rather than burning. As much as this sounds like a mercy, it’s often the reason people get caught in fires in the first place, as the toxic fumes will render you unresponsive before you can roll out of bed.

Where the cause of death is actually more of a flames-meet-skin affair, the results are pretty harrowing.

Imagine touching a hot plate on the oven, even if you snatch your hand away at top speed, it still fricking hurts. Now imagine that you can’t snatch the hand away.

The immediate acute pain is felt as the flames get close to the skin, stimulating the nerves and beginning to cook the flesh, to begin with, this will actually boost the skin’s pain sensitivity (sort of your body’s way of trying to get you outta there). After a short while, the top layer of skin containing the most sensitive nerves will have burnt away, and a deeper, duller pain will set in. You’ll probably stay concious long enough to smell your own body cooking.

Eventually, burn victims will die of blood and fluid loss causing the heart to stop.

2. Radiation


Despite what the movies may have told you, exposure to radiation is much more likely to result in a long, agonising death than superpowers.

The actual process that produces symptoms is the ability of ionizing radiation to rip apart atoms and molecules, making them highly unstable and reactive. This, understandably, is not very good for you.

The severity of your symptoms depends on the dose and the type of radiation. Small doses will bring about nausea, headaches, vomiting, fevers and rashes. Slightly higher doses will start to rip apart your cells, causing blood cells, white and red, to die.

This means a weakened immune system, haemophilia and anemia as your white blood cell, red blood cell and platelet counts plummet (those of you who paid attention in science class will notice that this is basically everything that makes blood, blood).

At extreme doses, the skin becomes red and blistered and begins to slough off, there is an increased risk of neurological damage, throwing tremors and seizures into the mix. The headaches and vomiting become debilitatingly intense and treatments such as blood and bone marrow transfusions will be ineffective. You will almost certainly die at these doses, and fast.

This is the case with short, intense bursts of radiation. However, long-term, low-level exposure massively increases the risk of cancers and the radiation will cause your DNA to physically mutate.

1. Scaphism


Scaphism, or “The Boats”, was an ancient method of execution designed by the Persians to causes as much suffering as possible before death.

The only descriptions of the practice that we have are from the Greeks, the mortal enemies of the Persians, so we can’t be entirely sure how common the practice actually was, or whether the Greeks used a bit of artistic license.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that it would be a terrible way to die.

The victim would be trapped inside two boats, or hollowed out tree trunks, with just their head, hands and feet protruding. The would be force-fed milk and honey (some kind of Persian irony there) to the point at which they developed horrendous diarrhea. At this point more milk and honey would be poured all over them, particularly the eyes, mouth and genitals, in order to attract insects.

The idea was that, as the boats filled with milk, honey and faeces, biting and burrowing insects would colonise it, inflicting horrible torture on the victim. There is debate as to whether the insects would actually burrow into the skin, or simply drive the victim mad as they swarmed, but this combined with whatever injuries were inflicted (because you can be sure they were), would cause the body to become horrendously gangrenous.

The torture was dragged out for as long as possible, but death would eventually come as a result of dehydration, starvation, exhaustion and septic shock.

You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out that that’s a nasty way to go.

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