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Scientifically, What's the Best Way to Die (Without Killing Yourself)?

Is there any way to go that's relatively painless and trauma-free?

Last week, Dr. Richard Smith wrote on the British Medical Journal website that dying of cancer—of all things—was the best way to go. His reasoning?

You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favorite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

Seemingly everyone in the entire world, many of whom have seen someone die horribly of cancer, immediately called Smith an idiot. Cancer eats your body away from the inside and leaves you a husk of a human. Cancer sucks. There must be a better way to leave the world behind. So what is it?

A few months ago, our colleagues at Motherboard tackled the opposite question, asking what the worst way to die is. It turned out it was basically anything that's slow and leaves you in a hospital bed for your final days. But what's the best way to go? Naturally, by asking that question in the title, I'm begging to be accused of exploiting the googling habits of the severely depressed.

So, if you're thinking of killing yourself please go here. Also note that popular ways to bring about a pleasant form of self-termination like carbon monoxide, the tailpipe hose trick, having a doctor in Oregon give you a drug cocktail, or even plain old heroin overdose, won't get my endorsement today.

Instead, I got to the bottom of the myths and realities about some of the ways to die that people say are great. Most of them aren't. Here's what I learned.

Fantasy Scenarios:

NSFW Warning: The video above features the naked boobs of human women

It's tough to nail down what people mean when they talk about the "best" way to die, but I'll start by entertaining some of the popular fantasy death notions. First of all there's the one in which a person dies gloriously in battle—a notion so silly it has an entire movie genre dedicated to criticizing it.

Then there are the fantasies about doing some sex stuff before your life is painlessly extinguished—a heart attack at the orgasmic conclusion of a blowjob, say, or (as in the video above), being chased off a cliff by topless models (spoiler).

This doesn't really do much in terms of answering the question. First of all, falling off a cliff isn't the answer, nor are falls in general. Sure, landing on your head after falling out of a plane sounds like an instantaneous death, but falls can result in ruptured internal organs and broken bones, making that way extremely painful—and if you survive you'll have to deal with debilitating injuries.

As for internal causes of death brought on by the exertions of sex, they're often painful. Sudden cardiopulmonary events—embolism, aneurysm, AVM, etc.—can feel like " the worst headache of your life," along with a whole world of weird symptoms like nausea and hallucinations. Heart attacks, as you probably already know, feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.

Sudden cardiac arrest, however, in which your heart just locks up like Windows 95 and the lights go out, is a strong contender for best way to die during sex. However, as a person who suffers from arrhythmia, I can tell you that the feeling of your heartbeat going haywire is unpleasant, like butterflies in your chest and a lump in your throat. I can't recommend that scary sensation during intercourse.

But sexual fantasies culminating in death generally involve a partner, meaning your death will cause another person to suffer. After all, you're causing someone to witness your death, manhandle your naked corpse, and possibly have to touch your dead genitals. It could be a nice way to go in the best of all possible circumstances, like when Matthew McConaughey's dad died having sex with his mom, and she later called it "just the best way to go!" but on the other hand it could turn into the terrifying Stephen King novel Gerald's Game, or that one scene in Clerks.

In any case, I find it more useful to look at more realistic things anyway.

Hypothermia:
Hypothermia is a long trip that involves much more than shivering and numb skin; some say in the end you feel a sense of enormous well-being, and you'll want to be left to die even if someone tries to save you. That's just (literal) crazy talk, though.

In his book Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance, Peter Stark gives a vivid scientific and narrative account of what it's like to freeze to death. After hours in the cold, as your body starts shutting down, you're likely to start hallucinating, or even feel warm. You might feel so warm, in fact, that you'll rip all your clothes off.

This is because when your body drops below a core temperature of 93 degrees, amnesia will set in. You won't know what's going on. By 88 degrees, you'll stop shivering. At 86 degrees your brain won't be working well enough to recognize your mother's face. It's down in this range, around 85 degrees, where you'll rip your clothes off and possibly bury yourself underneath a snowbank, which won't help.

From there, assuming you're in sub-zero weather, it can still take hours to for your temperature to drop below 70 degrees, the point at which most people die. If you do experience euphoria in that time, it's after you've been through hell and lost your mind. I seriously doubt that's worth it.

Drowning:

There's a piece of folk wisdom about drowning that you've probably read, and it says that drowning feels like a hug, or like being in the womb. There are famous accounts like the one from the late music producer Michael Case Kissel in which angelic voices told him, "There's nothing to be afraid of." But Kissel's experience sounds atypical.

Your body will do everything it can to prevent you from taking a lungful of water, as you can see from the video above of Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded. After just a few seconds of water down the wrong pipe, Hitchens experienced lasting anxiety and nightmares. (Afterward, he came to the rather no-duh conclusion that waterboarding was torture.)

In The Perfect Storm Sebastian Junger details exactly what happens when you drown. After the decrease in blood oxygen becomes so extreme that you're starting to lose consciousness already, you do finally breathe water. Ten percent of people experience such a strong spasm in their larynx that they die of suffocation without the water reaching their lungs. The other 90 percent will just breathe and breathe and breathe as they slip unconscious. There just might be something pleasant in the feeling of succumbing to the lack of oxygen, but everything that comes before that is literal torture.

Decapitation:

With the Islamic State killing journalists, it's no time to endorse decapitation in general as a good way to die. There's no reason to watch the videos, but if you did, you would see that people suffer horribly—and tragically—when their heads are sawed off by hand.

Still, there is something uniquely unambiguous and final about having your head cut off by something as elegant as a guillotine. Medical examiner and author Shiya Ribowsky once told the History Channel that he "can't imagine a quicker and more painless way to go." The blade is only in contact with your neck for 1/100th of a second, and after that, no one survives. Estimates of the failure rate of the Guillotine during the French Revolution vary, but there were as few as one, according to an essay in The Quarterly Review from 1843, and that's out of thousands of decapitations during the Reign of Terror.

But do you survive long enough to notice that you're just a head in a basket? When you talked about beheadings on the schoolyard, you were probably quoted something like five to seven seconds of life after you hear that loud chopping sound. That's the number Ribowsky quotes as well, and a written account of a beheaded criminal from 1905 describes the decapitated head looking around and making faces for that amount of time, but it doesn't take consciousness to do that. In any case, the blood loss and drastic drop in blood pressure would cause you to lose consciousness very quickly, and you'd definitely never come back.

Still, no one's been executed by guillotine since 1977, and they probably aren't headed for a comeback. What's more, clean guillotine-esque decapitations do happen from time to time, and they're horrifying and gruesome for the people who find your body.

Dying in Your Sleep:
Dying in your sleep isn't something that's supposed to happen, and when young people do, it's tragic, horrifying even. Even heavily medicated, unresponsive cancer patients are typically clinging to consciousness, or at least experiencing something called agonal respiration, when they die. Plus, the onset of a sudden fatal condition like a heart attack would probably wake you up. Dying in your sleep should be rare.

So it's odd how often obituaries list people as having "died peacefully in [his/her] sleep." I'm not the only one who's noticed. Elizabeth Simpson of the Virginian-Pilot found the term strange and launched an investigation. The resulting article is a really good read.

Among the insights she gains about dying peacefully in your sleep:

  • The term is often a euphemism for suicide.
  • Sleep apnea often plays a role, particularly in the elderly.
  • Relatively distressing conditions like strokes and ruptured aneurysms can cause people to die in their sleep later.

But the most interesting thing she learned was that the previously mentioned sudden cardiac arrest, the one caused by your heart just suddenly freaking out, was the most likely culprit in sudden deaths that occur while sleeping.

You can see from the example of Richard Smith, the cancer lover, that not all experts will agree about this stuff, but in sudden cardiac arrest during sleep, I think I have my answer. I know the fluttering sensation of a heart suddenly going off beat all too well. It's a weird feeling, but if that's really what sudden cardiac arrest feels like—and firsthand accounts describe them as painless—having one wouldn't wake me up. If that struck in the middle of the night, and the lights just never turned back on, I don't think there's a better way to go than that.

That or the guillotine.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.