How would you like to die?

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Some go peacefully, some “rage against the dying of the light”, some do it themselves,
some let nature take its course, for some it is a low key event, some do it in style. The
uncomfortable truth is, sooner or later, we’re all going to do it but have you ever wondered
how you’re likely to die? My own, rather rudimentary, research into how people would like to
die yielded a variety of not very constructive answers: “peacefully”, “old age”, “in bed” and
“jumping off something.” Of course most of us aren’t going to get what we want on
this one and statistics suggest that the most likely way will be heart disease or cancer. But
of course, as 83% of people know, statistics can be used to prove anything, so here goes.
The US national Safety Council has over the past few years estimated the chances of dying
from various causes. For example, the chances of dying from falling from a bed or chair are
1 in 4745 but only 1 in 93,125 from contact with hot tap water. Ignition of nightwear is the
fate of 1 in 286,537 people whilst “foreign body entering through skin or natural orifice”
accounts for 1 in 161,956. an average of 73 are struck and killed by lightning each year and,
according to Professor Steve Jones, this is much more likely to happen to men. The
chances of drowning in floods caused by a dam bursting are 1 in 10 million and there is of
course also a 1 in 2.8 million chance that you will die falling down a hole, possibly much
shorter odds if you are a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Vending machines – safe, yes?
no, these deadly pieces of equipment kill an average of twelve UK citizens each year,
shaking it for that last KitKat really isn’t worth it. and any resident ofOxford will not express
surprise that those ‘silent killers’, bikes, are responsible for 824 US deaths every year.
away from our perilous modern existence filled with vending machines and hot-taps the
natural world is of course a dangerous place to be. For example, the chances of dying from
being bitten by a dog are 1 in 206,944. “death where is thy sting?” – well for 6 million
americans each year it is in the end of a bee. But you have only a 1 in 54 million chance of
dying from a spider, lizard or snake bite.Scientists wanting to prove just how innocuous various animals are often cite the odds of
being hit on the head by a falling coconut, George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum
of natural History’s International Shark attack File (somehow I can’t imagine a British
museum appointing a director of ‘shark attack file’) claims that fifteen times as many
people are killed by coconuts than by sharks each year and that coconuts account for 150
deaths per annum. This idea has been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Peter Barss, an
american academic whose jolly oeuvre includes, ‘Suicide in the Southern Highlands of
Papua new Guinea’, ‘Scald burns in children 0-14 years old’ and ‘Cold Immersion deaths
from drowning and Hypothermia’. He was awarded an Ig-nobel Prize in 2001 for his thesis
‘Injuries due to Falling Coconuts’ and now works in Saudi arabia. Barss further aided
medical science during his period in the tropics in the 1980s with such publications as,
‘Inhalation hazards of tropical “pea shooters”’, ‘Falls from trees and tree associated injuries
in rural Melanesians’ and the scientific classic ‘Grass-skirt burns in Papua new Guinea’.
Perhaps we should not pay too much attention to a man who has made his living
inspecting the buttocks of young Papua new Guinean girls, conclude that the
coconut statistic might just be George Burgess talking out of his Barss and that the much
maligned coconut is less dangerous than has been suggested.But how should you prevent all this? Well clearly you need to stay in your house at all costs,
have no social contact and never turn on the hot tap. Oh, and be naked. Yes because
clothes can kill as well and not just grass-skirts. Recent research has suggested that tight
ties can cause glaucoma and we chaps have long been aware of the health risks of tight Y-
fronts but perhaps the most dangerous article of clothing your trousers. Yes, each year
3695 people are hospitalised in trouser- related accidents. Primarily this is from putting
them on too quickly and falling over but anyone who has seen There’s Something about
Mary will realise the health benefits of button flies as opposed to the zip variety.On the other hand most accidents happen in the home, a fact which would be attested to by
the 35 people which the royal Society for the Prevention of accidents claims were injured in
2000 by tea cosies or the 738 who suffered at the hands of beanbags three years ago.
Over recent years the Darwin awards have shown us some of world’s most peculiar deaths
and accidents, such as the six egyptians who drowned in 1995 trying to rescue a chicken
from a well (the chicken survived) or the Californian who, offended by a rattle snake sticking
its tongue out at him, returned the favour only to have the offended body part bitten off. The
awards are of course designed to confirm darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, or at
any rate the survival of those who can remember to put the pin back into an unthrown
grenade before returning it to their pocket. Of course one way to insure an eccentric death
seems to be to become famous. Celebrities and especially musicians have a habit of dying
in bizarre circumstances. Jazz musician Chet Baker’s defenestration or Sonny Bono skiing
into a tree serve as reminders to us all. Sadly the story that Keith Moon drove his car into his
swimming pool is fanciful, as he actually died from alcohol poisoning, incidentally in the
same flat in which Mama Cass had died from ‘ham sandwich asphyxiation’ a couple of
years previously. Modern rock deaths are a familiar and predictable catalogue of
overdoses, suicides and traffic accidents and it is surprisingly to classical music that we
must turn to encounter the truly bizarre.Charles Valentin alkan, a French composer, died when a bookshelf collapsed on him as
he was reaching for a copy of the Talmud from the top shelf whilst Henry Purcell died from
chocolate poisoning. Jean-Baptiste Lully died from an infection when the large wooden
staff he used to keep time whilst conducting fell on his foot and the Czech Frantisek
Koczwara meta sticky end to autoerotic asphyxiation in 1791. Such a fate has more recently
befallen Conservative MP (and former Oxford Union president) Steven Milligan and BnP
activist Kristian etchells, which perhaps says all that needs to be said about the British
right. death was no more subtle in the ancient world either. aeschylus the Greek dramatist
died when a vulture dropped a tortoise on his head, and the stoic philosopher Chrysippus
died of laughter after seeing a donkey munching on figs. At the other end
of the Mediterranean, age might not have withered Cleopatra, but an asp to the breast did
the trick. and death is no respecter of position or breeding as many royals would testify.
King Béla I of Hungary died when his throne collapsed due to sabotage and his compatriot
Matthias died after eating poisoned figs, which Chrysippus would presumably have found
quite amusing had he still been around. Modern day Hungarians seem to fare little better, in 1973 Finance Minister Péter Vályi died
when he fell into a blast furnace at a factory he was inspecting. Ben Schott revels in
recounting the deaths of Burmese kings in his Original Miscellany including no less than
three trampled by elephants and one killed by an enraged cucumber farmer whose
cucumbers the king had eaten. Closer to home, Henry I died of a surfeit of lampreys whilst
edward II was unfortunate enough to be the 1 person in 161,956 to die from a foreign body
entering the body through skin or natural orifice although as the foreign body was a red-hot
poker and the orifice was his anus I suspect the odds are somewhat longer. The quest for
knowledge is a noble one but one which has its hazards, just look at the case of Francis
Bacon who died from pneumonia after stuffi ng a chicken with snow to see if cold could
preserve meat; his body was not cryogenically frozen.Or there is Scottish botanist david
douglas who died in 1834 after falling down a pit trap and being crushed by a bull
which fell down the same trap. What are the chances? Well 1 in 2.8 million actually. One
final word of warning, “manners maketh man” but they can finishth the man just as easily,
as danish astronomer Tycho Brahe found out in 1601 when he politely remained at the
dining table rather than get up to go to the toilet during a banquet. He died of the ensuing
bladder infection. So what is the moral of all this? “Some people are so afraid to die that
they never begin to live” said Henry Van dyke, so we can all afford to live a little. Living won’t
kill you, though it will be those bastard vending machines. Is it wrong to laugh at other
people’s misfortune? George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be funny when
people die” and he should know – he died falling out of an apple tree at the ripe old age of
94.ARCHIVE: 4th week MT 2005

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