What Does It Feel Like To Die

New Scientist has an article that explores what it feels like to die. They cover drowning, decapitation and more. Here are a couple of excerpts for your review:

Nearly instantaneous

Beheading, if somewhat gruesome, can be one of the quickest and least painful ways to die – so long as the executioner is skilled, his blade sharp, and the condemned sits still.

The height of decapitation technology is, of course, the guillotine. Officially adopted by the French government in 1792, it was seen as more humane than other methods of execution. When the guillotine was first used in public, onlookers were reportedly aghast at the speed of death.

Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds. Some macabre historical reports from post-revolutionary France cited movements of the eyes and mouth for 15 to 30 seconds after the blade struck, although these may have been post-mortem twitches and reflexes.

If you end up losing your head, but aren’t lucky enough to fall under the guillotine, or even a very sharp, well-wielded blade, the time of conscious awareness of pain may be much longer. It took the axeman three attempts to sever the head of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. He had to finish the job with a knife.

Decades earlier in 1541, Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was executed at the Tower of London. She was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head down. The inexperienced axe man made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. According to some reports, she leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, who struck 11 times before she died.


Speed of death depends on the hangman’s skill

Suicides and old-fashioned “short drop” executions cause death by strangulation; the rope puts pressure on the windpipe and the arteries to the brain. This can cause unconsciousness in 10 seconds, but it takes longer if the noose is incorrectly sited. Witnesses of public hangings often reported victims “dancing” in pain at the end of the rope, struggling violently as they asphyxiated. Death only ensues after many minutes, as shown by the numerous people being resuscitated after being cut down – even after 15 minutes.

When public executions were outlawed in Britain in 1868, hangmen looked for a less performance-oriented approach. They eventually adopted the “long-drop” method, using a lengthier rope so the victim reached a speed that broke their necks. It had to be tailored to the victim’s weight, however, as too great a force could rip the head clean off, a professionally embarrassing outcome for the hangman.

Despite the public boasting of several prominent executioners in late 19th-century Britain, a 1992 analysis of the remains of 34 prisoners found that in only about half of cases was the cause of death wholly or partly due to spinal trauma. Just one-fifth showed the classic “hangman’s fracture” between the second and third cervical vertebrae. The others died in part from asphyxiation.

Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, has found similar results in US victims. He concluded, however, that even if asphyxiation played a role, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious. “What the hangmen were looking for was quick cessation of activity,” he says. “And they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation.”

Call me a chicken, but whenever that day comes I ask for quick and painless.

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  1. Jack's Shack October 18, 2007 at 4:01 am

    I’ll let you know what I find out.

    I am curious.

    n the DS9 episode “Nor the Battle to the Strong” there’s a discussion that when someone is beheaded the last sight he’d see would be his headless body. Pleasant thought.


  2. Soccer Dad October 16, 2007 at 4:36 am

    I believe we may have discussed this before. Last year Slate wrote about “drop tables” for determining the correct length of rope for a person of a given size.

    In the DS9 episode “Nor the Battle to the Strong” there’s a discussion that when someone is beheaded the last sight he’d see would be his headless body. Pleasant thought.

  3. treppenwitz October 14, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    I’ve dashed off a letter to the lexicographer in the family to see if there is a connection between the lady described in the last paragraph of the decapitiation section and the term ‘pole-axed’. I’ll let you know what I find out.

  4. Jack's Shack October 13, 2007 at 2:29 pm


    I’ll take a look.




    Me too.

  5. The Misanthrope October 13, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Going in my sleep will be just fine for me, thanks.

  6. Z October 12, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I have to agree with you.

  7. fashionista cat in a zero gravity shoe-store October 12, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Jack, if you care to spare $11.16 and to gain lots of facinating, somewhat gross and hilariously funny insights, I recommend you this book:

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