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The Real Reason People Wear Black At Funerals

Richard Milner 47-60 minutes 9/11/2022
Couple in black holding hands at funeral


Wearing black at funerals seems like a no-brainer choice, right? Black is a sad, doomy-gloomy shade (not a color) best associated with those Goth kids sulking in the parking lot, or a runway model in Milan wearing a super-serious death glare face. Funerals are a time of mourning, not a time to sport a newly-bought, gaudy orange dress while taking Insta-selfies next to a coffin.

Like many simple-looking traditions, wearing black to a funeral has a long history beyond common sense or arbitrary cultural tastes. And yet, a surprising number of cultures around the world have the same tradition of wearing black, or at least dark, clothes to funerals: Vietnam (via Vietnam Online), Germany (via The Funeral Market), Brazil (along with purple, via Funeral Partners), the Maori in New Zealand (via Frazer Consultants), the Xhosa in South Africa (although you can incorporate tribal patterns into clothing, via Hollard), and many more across the world. 

Is there actually something inherent or instinctual to wearing black when mourning? Did the tradition somehow make its way across the entire globe from some single historical source? Are we just looking at the effects of globalization and our shared, worldwide, consumerist monoculture? The short answer is yes — all of the above, at least as far as we can tell. We know that customs regarding wearing black at funerals date back to at least the Roman Empire, and got popularized through an unlikely source: Queen Victoria.  

Mourning in Rome

Roman senator statue


Let's be clear: Funeral practices go back to a time before we have even the slightest clue about textiles, furs, or whatever else people were wearing in the hunter-gatherer days. Over 100 billion Homo sapiens (our species) have died; that's a whole lot of funerals and grief (via the BBC). It's impossible to say exactly where one specific custom of wearing one specific shade of garb began.

By the time we reach the comparatively recent past, Ancient Rome, we know that black was standard for funerals. Togas were a common form of clothing from Rome's earliest republic days, back in 753 BCE all the way to 200 CE, as ThoughtCo. explains. People wore very specific types of togas depending on rank, job, and certain events. The standard Toga pura was made of undyed wool and worn by anyone. Toga praetexta had reddish-purple borders and were worn by freeborn people and civil servants. Toga candida were worn by people running for office, and were rubbed with chalk to make them super white. And toga pulla? They were dark togas worn to funerals.

These were not willy-nilly societal norms, either. Roman statesman and famed, master orator Cicero (103 to 43 BCE) gives us a glimpse into the seriousness of Roman clothing etiquette. According to an article in Arethusa, published by John Hopkins University Press (posted on JSTOR), Cicero was once quoted as criticizing someone for being disrespectful and attention-seeking enough to wear a toga pulla at a funeral banquet, rather than the funeral itself.

A queenly precedent

Queen Victoria wearing black

Print Collector/Getty Images

Thanks to Ancient Rome's strict dress code, we've got some historical precedent for wearing black to funerals. But it was Queen Victoria herself, the UK's eccentric, independently-minded, occult-loving, drug-using monarch, who is responsible for the universal proliferation of funeral black. Even though she went through ups and downs in public popularity, Victoria had a tremendous impact on her world, known as the "Grandmother of Europe," no thanks in small part to her 42 grandchildren seeded across various European royal families (via History Extra).

Here's where things get legitimately sad. Queen Victoria got married at the age 20 to her cousin, Prince Albert. By all accounts she was totally mad about him, and also asked him to marry her, rather than the other way around. As History Extra quotes, she wrote in her diary, "He is extremely handsome. His hair is about the same color as mine; his eyes are large and blue and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth." They were married for over 20 years, and when Albert died in 1861, Victoria was heartbroken. She was so devastated, in fact, that she wore nothing but black for the rest of her life, as Biography reports.

The nobles of the time did their best to imitate their leader. Fast forward over 100 years and the custom has spread across the world.

Next Up

The Ways You Are Most Likely To Die At Every Age In America

A woman next to a coffin

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

They say the only two things in the world you can be certain of are death and taxes, but death is the only thing that can actually excuse you from paying your taxes so, in a way, death is really the only thing you can be certain of.

You probably try not to spend a whole lot of time pondering the many ways you could shuffle off this mortal coil, because frankly, it's depressing and not really a super productive way to spend your time. That's okay though because the CDC and various other health authorities have already done all the math for you. Thanks, guys!

Depending on how many years you've already spent avoiding your ultimate reward (or punishment, no one's judging), the ways you are most likely to die do vary from year to year and decade to decade. The bad news is that knowing this information is less and less helpful the older you get — most causes of death are at least somewhat preventable, but the amount of control you have over the Grim Reaper's ultimate decision tends to decrease as the years go by. So consider the following information part public health service announcement, and part you're gonna die and you can't do anything about it. You're welcome.



Amorn Suriyan/Shutterstock

The first day of life is the most dangerous. No matter where you are in the world, your chances of dying at birth are ridiculously high compared to every other day of your life, and that's even true in the United States. Most people like to nurture the illusion that American health care is the best there is, but in 2013, Save the Children noted that 11,300 American babies die on the first day of life every year, which is more than anywhere else in the industrial world. In fact, there are about twice as many first-day deaths in America each year as there are in the entirety of Europe, and just in case you think that's a population thing, it isn't. Total annual births in Europe outnumber births in the United States by about 1 million.

According to the CDC, the leading causes of death for newborns here in the United States are (in order of how common they are) low birth weight, congenital defects, and maternal complications. Low birth weight is defined as any baby weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. A big cause of low birth weight is prematurity; obviously, when a baby is born early, it's less likely to be a healthy weight. But babies can also be born small because they stop growing before birth. Maternal health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and infections can contribute to this, and so can drug use, both prescription and illicit.

Babies up to age 1



If you're lucky enough to survive the first day of life, you still have to get through your first year. As of 2019, infant mortality in the United States (defined as death that occurs any time before a child's first birthday) was 5.6 deaths per 1,000 births. Taken together, the three leading causes of death for babies under the age of one are birth defects, preterm birth, and injuries. Note, though, that the CDC includes newborn deaths in its numbers, so it's hard to say how the leading causes of death might change if you removed everyone who died during the first day of life.

Birth defects are tragically common. In the United States, the CDC reports that about one in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect. This includes more benign conditions like club foot and cleft lip and palate, but also a lot of dangerous conditions like major heart defects, spina bifida (a defect of the spine), and trisomy (chromosomal defects). Notably, the third leading cause of death in this age group is accidental injury (via the CDC), which includes suffocation. Suffocation deaths were once lumped under sudden infant death (that's the fourth leading cause of death in this group), but today we know many cases of sudden infant death are actually suffocation deaths. That's why it's important to put babies to sleep on their backs, remove sheets and pillows from cribs, and avoid falling asleep with your baby in your bed.

Kids ages 1 to 4

A toddler with a carrot

Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Once babies become toddlers, a whole new set of dangers starts to unfold. Unsurprisingly, the CDC says the leading cause of death for this group is unintentional injury. After all, toddlers are forever climbing on things, knocking things over, swallowing things, and choking on things. Even a very cautious parent may not be aware of every single household hazard. Toddlers who climb on and knock over furniture can be crushed to death. A benign-seeming button battery or a pair of high-powered magnets can be lethal if swallowed. But by far the most dangerous thing in the house is water. In fact, according to the CDC, drowning is the number one accidental cause of death in kids age four and under. It can happen anywhere, even in a bathtub, but the family pool is one of the most glaringly obvious household hazards. It only takes a few minutes for a kid to slip out the back door, fall into the pool and drown.

Besides accidents, birth defects continue to claim kids in this age group. Sometimes it's undiagnosed problems like heart defects (via National Library of Medicine) and sometimes it's known defects that the child has been dealing with since birth. And as accidental injury moves up in the ranking, a new cause of death lands in spot number three. Kids this age become more at risk of being murdered, often by a parent or other caregiver (via U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Kids ages 5 to 9

Eight year old boy

Sergey and Marina Pyataev/Shutterstock

Drowning is no longer a major cause of death as kids approach school age, but other types of unintentional injury move in to take its place. At this age, the CDC says motor vehicle accidents become the biggest cause of accidental death.

What's especially awful about this statistic is a lot of these deaths are preventable. According to the CDC, 38% of kids 12 and younger who die in car accidents aren't properly restrained. That means they either weren't using a seatbelt at all or they weren't sitting in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat. What's more, in 2019, 23% of child motor vehicle deaths were alcohol-related — sometimes it was the other driver who was impaired, but 63% of the time it was the driver of the car the child was riding in.

According to the CDC, at this age kids also start becoming more susceptible to that major scourge of humanity: the malignant neoplasm, colloquially known as cancer. A lot of people like to think of cancer as something that mostly happens to older people, but the sad truth is that cancer can kill just about anyone, including children, who are most susceptible to leukemia, brain tumors, lymphomas, neuroblastoma, kidney cancer, and bone cancer (via National Cancer Institute). Birth defects continue to be a big killer in this group, too. This cause of death doesn't fall out of the top three until age 10 or so.

Kids ages 10 to 14

12 year old girl

ViDI Studio/Shutterstock

Ages 10 to 14 are tough years for kids. They're either in middle school or are getting close to being in middle school, and middle school is an awful place. Not only do kids have more responsibilities and higher expectations at this age, but this is when bullying starts to really ramp up and social pressures become disproportionately important. Still, it's surprising to learn that suicide rates are high in this group because many people want to believe that a kid this age should still be enjoying childhood in a mostly carefree way. 

According to the CDC, suicide and motor vehicle accidents are the two most common types of injury death for kids between the ages of 10 and 14. A 2021 report published by the National Institute of Mental Health found that kids with certain risk factors were more prone to death by suicide, including a mental health diagnosis of ADHD or depression, and problems like divorce, trouble at school, and domestic violence. It can be easy for parents and teachers to overlook the signs, so it's worth noting that any mention of suicide in a child this age — even one that seems flippant — should never be ignored.

Cancer also remains on the list of causes of death for this group (via the CDC), in third place. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Ages 15 to 24

Young adult


In 2018, the CDC reported that motor vehicle accidents killed 360 kids between the ages of 10 and 14. That same year, 6,308 teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 died in motor vehicle accidents. That's around a 10-fold difference in deaths from this cause between the first group and the second.

Male teens are more than two times as likely as females to die in a motor vehicle accident, and the presence of other kids in the car compounds the risk. Unsurprisingly, the CDC also says that crashes are 1.5 times more likely for 16-year-olds than for 18- to 19-year-olds. Teens also have much lower compliance with seat belt laws, tend to get distracted by their phones, are more likely to speed, and are much more susceptible to the effects of alcohol while behind the wheel. So to sum up, don't let your kid have a driver's license until the age of 25.

In this age group, homicide also moves up on the list as a major cause of death. In 2018, 6,466 teens and young adults died this way, most of them by firearm (via the CDC). Teens and young adults also have high rates of perpetrating violent crime. In fact according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2018, the rate of adolescents and young adults arrested for the perpetration of violent crimes was 249 per 100,000.

Ages 25 to 34

Woman in her 30s

Oleg Samoylov/Shutterstock

Your mid-20s to mid-30s are your formative years. This is the time of your life when you've either graduated or are about to graduate from college (if you can afford the tuition, anyway), are thinking about marriage and about starting a family, and/or are really starting to get established in your career. You're also a lot less stupid than you were when you were younger. At least, you're supposed to be.

As it turns out, unintentional injury is still the top cause of death for people in this age group. Car accidents, however, are no longer the highest-ranking accidental death (though there are still a lot of them — 6,886 in 2018 via the CDC). Instead, accidental poisonings take first place. In fact, in 2018 there were 15,353 deaths from this cause in the 25- to 34-year-old age group.

"Unintentional poisoning," as it turns out, is mostly just a polite way of saying "drug overdose." Deaths in this category include alcohol poisoning, deaths from street drugs, deaths from prescription medication taken without a doctor's supervision, and deaths that happen because someone took the wrong dose of a legally prescribed medication. Other types of poisonings are included here, too, such as pesticide poisoning or carbon monoxide poisoning, but the CDC's 2004 document on the subject barely even mentions these other types of poisonings, presumably because they're just a drop in an otherwise very large and heavy bucket.

Also in the top three for this group: suicide, then homicide (via the CDC).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Ages 35 to 44

40-something man

Page Light Studios/Shutterstock

So you might think that at this age, finally, most people start taking their lives a little more seriously, taking fewer risks, and being somewhat more responsible, and as a result, the accidental death rate starts to decline. Well, as it turns out not a whole lot changes between this decade of your life and the last one. In fact, in 2018 the CDC reports that the numbers held pretty steady, with 14,978 unintentional poisoning deaths and 5,068 motor vehicle deaths.

In general, people's lives do stabilize as they get older, have children, and get settled into their careers. That's not necessarily always the case, though. While it is true that drug use is higher in people between the ages of 18 and 25 (via Drug Abuse Statistics), even people in older age groups may turn to drugs or alcohol when a major life event like job loss causes those feelings of comfortable stability to suddenly evaporate (via American Journal of Public Health).

The main difference between this decade of life and the last one is that a new cause of death creeps up into position number two: heart disease, which will remain a looming threat for most of the rest of your life (via the CDC). Cancer also reappears in spot number three as one of the top killers of people in this age group.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Ages 45 to 54

Man in his 50s


The list flip flops a little as you get into your mid-40s and 50s. Unintentional injury finally falls into position number three (via the CDC), but now you start to become more vulnerable to chronic diseases. 

Cancer is the number one killer in this group. While younger people tend to develop cancers of the blood, bone, brain, and lymph nodes, older adults are more likely to develop lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and bladder cancer (via WebMD). And while kids and adolescents who develop cancer have a pretty good chance of survival (according to the National Cancer Institute, survival for kids with cancer is around 85%, depending on the type), older adults don't always fare so well. According to Cancer Research UK, cancer survival rates are highest in the 15 to 40 year age group. After that, they steadily decline until the 80 to 99 year age group, where they're typically the lowest. The only exception is breast and prostate cancer — middle-aged people who get those two types tend to do better than younger people do.

Heart disease is in second place as a leading killer of people in this age group. Your risk for heart disease depends on some factors that you can't really do anything about, like your age, sex, and genetic factors (via National Library of Medicine), but smoking, an unhealthy diet, poor exercise habits, and a high-stress lifestyle are things you can control, so that's worth keeping in mind as you approach middle age.

Ages 55 to 64

60 year old woman


You've almost made it to retirement age, and now new things are threatening to kill you. Cancer and heart disease are still holding pretty steady in slot numbers one and two, but the third leading cause of death in this age group is now COVID-19.

To be fair, COVID-19 didn't even exist a couple of years ago, and it may not be as big a killer a few years from now, either. But according to the CDC, in 2020 the virus that causes COVID-19 was almost as good at taking down people between the ages of 55 and 64 as cancer and heart disease (the CDC still listed it towards at the front of the death-causing pack in 2021, too). And it's in a really unique position because it's the only infectious disease to make the top three up anywhere on the CDCs list. To give you an idea about how much things have changed in the last couple hundred years, Americans in the 1800s were still regularly dying from things like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and malaria (via Mortality of the United States). So if you haven't thanked science lately, you should totally do that.

Because there's more immunity in the general population now (though the Guardian says optimism the virus might become less deadly over time is probably misplaced), there's some hope that COVID-19 isn't always going to be high on the list. Still, if you're in this age group, getting vaccinated is a good idea.

Ages 65 to 74

An older couple

Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

By the time you get to 65, you're pretty set in your ways. You like to watch Jeopardy at 7:30 pm. You go to bed at 8:30. And you've been eating four strips of bacon for breakfast every morning since you were 32, and you're not about to change that now.

That could be one of the reasons why people over the age of 64 are more likely to die from heart disease — because despite the doctor's warnings they just don't make the healthy lifestyle changes that might ward off a potentially deadly heart condition. According to the American College of Cardiology, older people may also suffer from mobility problems, which can trigger a downward spiral of limited activity and poor heart health. At this age, you tend to also have stiffer blood vessels, and that, too, can contribute.

The good news is that cancer is no longer the main killer in this age group. It moves down to position two on the CDC's list, but don't let that fool you into thinking fewer people at this age die from cancer. In fact, in 2020 there were four times as many cancer deaths in people over the age of 65 as there were in people aged 55 to 64, it's just that there were way more deaths from heart disease. And still in the number three spot: COVID-19, waiting to claim those who escaped the other two killers.

Ages 75 to 84

80 year old man


The CDC lumps everyone 65 and older into the same category, but the truth is that causes of death do change a bit once you make it to the age of 75. According to Statista, 36.1% of deaths from Alzheimer's disease happen in the 75 to 84-year-old age group, and according to BMC Public Health, adults over the age of 75 also have the highest risk of hospitalization and death from influenza.

People in this group have an even higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than people in the 65 to 74 group. In fact, as of February 2022, people between the ages of 75 and 84 accounted for 22.2% of all deaths from COVID-19, even though they account for only 4.9% of the population (via Statista).

Still, don't discount the impact of heart disease and cancer in this age group. Both causes of death remain high for people over the age of 75. And we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that cancer and heart disease deaths may be increasing because of COVID-19. According to Onco'Zine, cancer diagnoses actually decreased between March and April of 2020, not because cancer decreased but because people weren't having their symptoms checked out. The numbers were worse during the early lockdown, but the bad news has continued through the pandemic. Some estimates say there will be as many as 10,000 excess deaths from colon and breast cancer because of COVID-related delays in diagnosis.

Ages 85+

90 year old woman


Not much changes after you pass the age of 85. According to McKnight's Long-Term Care News, heart disease is still the number one killer for people over the age of 85. In 2018, it was responsible for 28.6% of all deaths in this age group, compared to cancer, which claimed only 11.7% of those who died at this age, though it did remain in second place. People over the age of 85 are also vulnerable to dying from Alzheimer's disease, which rises into the top three leading causes of death. According to Statista, in 2021 36.4% of all Alzheimer's deaths occurred in people over the age of 85.

It probably also won't surprise you to hear that COVID-19 is very, very bad for people in this age group. People over the age of 85 represent just 2% of the population, yet they account for 27.5% of all COVID-19 deaths (via Statista).

If you make it to 100


Dan Negureanu/Shutterstock

If you make it all the way to the age of 100, well, you should have a huge birthday party and stop worrying about how you might die. Because at this point, who cares. You've beaten the odds, and you've almost certainly outlived every one of your peers. In fact according to Discover the Odds, centenarians (people 100 years old or older) make up only one percent of the population, so even just living to see your 100th birthday is a huge accomplishment.

Still, death finds us all eventually, and the CDC's 2016 report on centenarians in the United States noted that the leading cause of death for centenarians is still heart disease. At this age, though, Alzheimer's disease is in second place. Centenarians are also vulnerable to death from stroke and cancer, and influenza and pneumonia are also especially dangerous for this group. The CDC's report is pre-COVID, but we can probably safely assume that COVID-19 is as dangerous (if not more dangerous) for people over the age of 100 as it is for people over the age of 85.

Interestingly, a 2021 study published by Age and Ageing noted that there was a big increase in the number of Japanese centenarians during 2020, possibly because masks and social distancing not only protected this group from COVID but also from other communicable diseases like influenza.

Next Up

The Worst Ways To Die According To Scientists

grim reaper coming for your soul


No one can say for sure what happens after death. The religious tend to cling to the idea of an afterlife of either endless joy or eternal suffering, depending on one's earthly actions. Others say death is just the dissipation of human consciousness into nothingness. Or it might be one of the signs we may be living in a simulation; perhaps after death, we get to start over.

It's this fear of the inevitable that has led many to actively seek immortality. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang was reportedly so obsessed with it that he likely died from all the mercury-laced "elixirs of life" he ingested (via Seeker). Interestingly, while humanity has yet to unlock the longevity secrets of jellyfish and lobsters, we have a disturbingly extensive knowledge of how to kill each other. After all, why rely on senescence when there's science and violence, right?

Not all deaths are delivered equal, though. According to scientists — and sadly, recorded history — some mortality methods are simply more terrifying than others, like these 12 existence-enders, for example. Oh, and because it's tough to find irrefutable evidence of how ancient torture methods such as scaphism or the Pear of Anguish were used, this list only features verified ways anyone in this day and age can die.

Being buried alive is absolutely brutal

trying to escape being buried alive


What's more terrifying than dying? Try being incorrectly pronounced dead ... and then waking up trapped in a coffin 6 feet under the ground. According to Popular Science, the length of time one can survive being buried alive ranges from one and a half days to a paltry 10 minutes, depending on their ability to hold their breath or their body size (a larger individual, for example, would take up more space, leaving less room for oxygen).

If you try to dig your way out, you'd get crushed and suffocated by the sudden rush of dirt and soil. As Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene put it, "It'd be like concrete setting in the course of seconds." Conversely, if you do nothing, the carbon dioxide levels would eventually render you comatose as you gently slip into death's embrace.

FearOf.Net presents an actual term for the irrational fear of this sticky situation: taphophobia. Curiously, this fear led to some chillingly creative coffin "upgrades" in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from breathing tubes and glass panels (via The Guardian) to hey-I'm-still-alive-in-here alarm systems (via Smithsonian Magazine). Think we're past the point where things like this happen? In 2010, the New York Daily News published an article about a 76-year-old beekeeper who would have suffered this fate, had the funeral director not detected his pulse as he lay in his coffin.

Radiation can kill you, sooner or later

radiation symbol warns people of danger


No, this isn't about the kind of radiation that cell phones or microwave ovens emit: Non-ionizing radiation isn't strong enough to harm the human body in small doses, according to the FDA. The kind that can really mess you up is ionizing radiation, which you'd get from things like nuclear power plants, weapons tests, or outer space (via Rutgers University).

Ionizing radiation is powerful enough to charge your atoms by removing their electrons (via the WHO). As Popular Science explains, this can seriously damage your DNA, rendering your cells incapable of replicating and triggering their deterioration. The type and degree of suffering you'll endure depends on how you got blasted — whether internally or externally — and how much radiation you got blasted with, among other factors (via the EPA).

We measure radiation exposure in sieverts. The CDC's Radiation Thermometer provides some perspective: A chest X-ray emits about 0.1 millisievert (or 1/10,000th of a sievert), while a flight from New York to Los Angeles emits roughly a third of that. 500 millisieverts can make you nauseated, and 700 millisieverts can cause hair loss within half a month. Meanwhile, 1,000 millisieverts can cause hemorrhaging and diarrhea (via Reuters) while increasing your cancer risk. A dose of 4,000 millisieverts can kill you in two months. 10,000 millisieverts can wreck your intestines and end you in a week, and 20,000 could kill you in mere hours. So yeah, no superpowers for you, only death.

Decompression: a messy way to go

decompression chamber used for diving


Humans have gotten quite used to living on land. Sadly, we don't fare as well in the air or underwater, partly because of the differences in pressure (since air and water are both fluids). To protect ourselves during travel, we stay inside sealed chambers with consistent pressure. But when pressure abruptly changes due to punctures or damage, uncontrolled decompression happens. Regardless of whether you're flying or diving, it's both ugly and deadly.

According to the Smithsonian Museum, commercial flights reach altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. Atmospheric pressure gets lower as altitude increases, making your lungs work harder to get oxygen (via National Geographic). To prevent this, a plane's artificial altitude shouldn't exceed 8,000 feet (via TIME Magazine). However, any cracks or punctures during flight could cause decompression. At best, oxygen deprivation could happen. At worst, and with a big enough hole, people can get sucked out of the plane, like in the 1988 Aloha Airlines incident.

Meanwhile, divers experience increased pressure as water pushes down on them. Divers who ascend too quickly can experience decompression sickness: The decreased pressure causes nitrogen and other gases inside their bodies to bubble, leading to unbearable pain, internal damage, mental impairment, and even death. 

The most horrific decompression accident is perhaps one that occurred in 1983 in a compression chamber on the Byford Dolphin oil rig. An error resulted in explosive decompression, instantly killing several divers (via The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology).

Mariana mortality: crushed and consumed by zombie worms

at the bottom of the ocean


Ever wonder what lies at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Given how more people have walked on the Moon than explored Earth's deepest oceanic trench (via FlipScience), there aren't a lot of folks who can give a comprehensive answer based on firsthand experience. What experts can tell you with certainty, though, is that this 36,070-foot-deep formation would be an absolutely terrible place to die.

No one in their right mind would dive into the Mariana Trench unprepared and unprotected. Remember, the deeper you dive into the ocean, the greater the pressure. Down there, an unprotected person wouldn't just drown. Every single air-filled cavity in their body would be instantly crushed like paper by roughly 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure (via National Geographic), and they'll sink instead of floating to the surface. If it's any comfort, though, they'd still be recognizably human since the body's water can't be compressed, as San Francisco Exploratorium physicist Paul Doherty explained in a Reddit AMA thread from 2017.

Then again, what's waiting for the poor victim at the bottom wouldn't really care about that. Meet the Osedax worm, also called the "zombie worm." These mysterious, mouthless invertebrates secrete bone-dissolving acids from their skin, enabling the bacteria living in the worms to consume the nutrients inside the bones of whale carcasses and other corpses. And since they aren't very picky eaters, they probably wouldn't refuse some human hors d'oeuvres.

Free-falling elevators: a rare but horrendous way to die

view from a free-falling elevator


"Thank goodness for elevators," you think to yourself as you board one on your way up to the 40th floor. Otherwise, you'd have to take the stairs every day. By the time you make it to your office, your legs would probably already be killing you. The smile on your face disappears, though, as the elevator stops just before the 39th floor. Suddenly, your world literally starts crashing down, and you realize what's likely going to happen next: You'll die alone, painfully, at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

There are a number of ways being inside a free-falling elevator could go horribly wrong for you. For starters, you would almost certainly die upon impact, and in the worst way possible. Just ask the "MythBusters" team, who reported that a crash-test dummy ending up in pieces after a nine-story, 53 mph elevator drop. Gravity isn't your only problem here, though. You could just as easily be killed by all the parts and debris knocked loose inside the elevator (via LiveScience). Oh, and your internal organs will likely shift around inside you as you're falling. As Dr. Brad Sagura of the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital explained to CBS Minnesota, the fluid inside your organs, plus the fact that your intestines are "relatively mobile," contributes to how they behave during sudden drops.

Fortunately, today's elevator safety features make it highly unlikely that you'll find yourself in this grisly predicament.

Just stay away from volcanoes, seriously

an exploding volcano expelling molten material


Deaths directly related to volcanoes will always be extremely unpleasant. You don't even need to be within range of one to verify this: Just read the story of how Mount Vesuvius' unbridled fury wiped out the ancient city of Pompeii.

To satisfy everyone's curiosity, here's what would happen if, say, a researcher observing a volcano from a helicopter accidentally takes what would undoubtedly be the worst dive of their soon-to-end life. According to Universe Today, freshly ejected lava can reach temperatures of up to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time the person actually hits the surface of the volcanic pit, they'd be an unconscious fireball. Upon impact with the extremely viscous magma, most of their skeleton would shatter (via INSH). Before long, the person would be ashes. Hiking around a volcanic peak presents a different kind of danger: If the hellishly high temperatures and toxic gases don't kill you, asphyxiation probably will.

Volcanic geysers or hot springs aren't any better. In 2018, LiveScience reported the case of a man who fell into one of the Norris Geyser Basin's pools at Yellowstone National Park. Long story short, the near-boiling, incredibly acidic waters dissolved his remains completely within less than a day. Experts say that he probably didn't feel much, though, as the water would have obliterated his nerve endings within a very short period of time.

Chlorine trifluoride: one nasty customer

chlorine triflouride can make things explode


In an interview with LiveScience, Paul Doherty, who co-authored a book on different ways to die, talked about one that their publisher found too gruesome to print: getting shot by a Super Soaker full of liquid chlorine trifluoride (ClF3). What he didn't mention was that such a squirt gun would have to be made of specially treated metal (via Discovery); otherwise, it would likely destroy the gunslinger's hand. And if you did shoot someone with it, you would not only kill their nerves but also melt their bones.

Going through the various violent properties of ClF3 makes it clear why Nazis were so interested in weaponizing it during the 1930s. It's incredibly toxic, highly explosive, and insanely reactive, meaning it can set just about anything on fire. In 1965, a man who was exposed to liquid waste containing ClF3 for only around a minute experienced a frontal headache, abdominal pain, and two hours of difficulty breathing, all of which only subsided after he received medical attention.

Experts say that simply sniffing high concentrations of gaseous ClF3 can cause swollen eyes, coughing, breathing trouble, and convulsions. Greater exposure can kill you, but not before you suffer excruciating agony in your eyes, throat, and lungs. Meanwhile, skin contact can cause tissue damage and severe, possibly permanent burns.

Burning can bring unimaginable pain

a raging fire hurts and kills


Frankly, you don't need to fall into a volcano or be exposed to ClF3 to get a firsthand demonstration of extremely hot danger and destruction. On its own, being burned to the point of death is pretty terrible, simply because there are many different ways to get hurt or killed from burning.

When people hear about burns, either first-, second-, or third-degree burns come to mind. These three types affect the skin, with third-degree burns destroying even hair follicles and pain receptors. Here's what many don't realize: That's only halfway through the scale of pyric peril. Fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-degree burns cause serious damage to a victim's fat, muscle, and bone, respectively (via the National Institute of General Medical Sciences). The human body is predominantly water-based and isn't easy to burn (which is why cremation can take up to three hours). Hence, someone being burned to death would actually feel themself burning until they can't feel anything anymore.

Of course, the "fire" part of being set on fire isn't the only thing that can kill a burn victim. Damage to the nervous system, blood loss, dehydration, and even burn infections can all cause death (via Broken Map). If you're trapped with other people in a burning building, inhaling carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and other toxic components of smoke can be lethal to your tissues — or you could simply suffocate or lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen (via FlipScience).

Crucifixion will make you pray for death

crucifixion is a painful ordeal


History's most famous crucifixion victim is, without a doubt, that of Jesus Christ. Even non-Christians know that the religious figure died via this ancient form of capital punishment. The "how" part gets left out of the narrative, though, for understandable reasons: The science behind crucifixion isn't for the squeamish.

As physiologist Jeremy Ward told The Guardian, different factors could explain how death by crucifixion happens — and having nails as long as bananas driven through the victim's wrists and feet is the least of them. Once the cross is upright, the victim would have to bear their weight on their bent legs (or arms, if their executioner broke their legs beforehand). Eventually, gravity would win, dislocating the victim's shoulders and stretching them out of their sockets. At this point, the victim's chest would have to do all the heavy lifting, literally. And if suffocation due to a "perpetual state of inhalation" doesn't do them in, multiple organ failure would be more than happy to finish the job. A 2006 paper listed other possible causes, including heart failure, blood loss, and just straight-up losing the will to live. 

A person nailed to a cross wouldn't live longer than a day, though someone tied to a cross might last for a few days. For more severe crimes (or extra sadistic executioners), victims were crucified with their arms straight above their heads, cutting their survival time to just 30 minutes, tops.

Capital punishment: Not so clean and painless

capital punishment is not always painless


Considering the barbaric nature of execution methods from ancient times, you might be feeling relieved at the fact that they're no longer being practiced and that there are more humane ways of delivering the death sentence now. As it turns out, however, the methods of capital punishment used today aren't always as swift, effective, and merciful as they're purported to be.

Take the electric chair, for example. In theory, electrocution should be a quick and painless form of execution. According to ABC Science, it was popular with ordinary citizens in the late 1800s because it seemed like a less cruel alternative to hanging. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work how it should in real life. LiveScience recalled how convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first criminal to die by electrocution in 1890. It actually took two massive electrical jolts to kill him, with journalists reportedly writing about how Kemmler's dead body was "charred and smoking."

And then there's lethal injection, a method that uses three drugs to sedate, paralyze, and cause cardiac failure in inmates sentenced to death. Sadly, researchers who examined post-lethal injection autopsy reports saw evidence that more than 75% of inmates were experiencing pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and left "gasping for air" as they were executed (via NPR). In other words, the first injection didn't always work — and the inmates actually died slow, agonizing deaths. In some cases, the sentence couldn't even be carried out because the executioners couldn't find usable veins on inmates' arms to inject the drugs into.

Dehydration: the dry facts

spilled glass of water


Given how humans are nearly three quarters water, it's not surprising that the dangers of dehydration can quickly escalate all the way to death.

Popular Science breaks down the journey from dehydration to death into four stages. It starts with thirst. Under extreme heat or fatigue, the body can lose up to 2% of its weight in water through sweating. Without fluid replenishment, bodily systems will start to go haywire as the person's blood volume drops. According to Scientific American, when the person stops sweating, they'll begin overheating. This is the second stage, where the person will start to lose consciousness, and their skin will dry up. At stage three, kidney and liver failure will kick in, seriously damaging organs and poisoning the person from the inside until the final stage (death).

Children are particularly at risk for dehydration-related death, which can come within hours. Meanwhile, a healthy adult can last up to a week with minimal water intake. That's no reason to tempt fate, though, so please get up and grab yourself a glass of water, now.

Decapitation: a potential headache for everyone involved

swift decapitation via guillotine machine


Decapitation, whether purposeful or accidental, may seem straightforward. The brain controls various bodily systems and functions, and it needs oxygen to do so. Thus, it makes sense that physically separating it from its oxygen supply would shut it down (via The Conversation). That's why beheadings have been around for thousands of years, possibly as far back as the early Holocene epoch (according to a 2015 paper). Sadly, such executions don't always go smoothly, leading to gruesomely uncomfortable situations for both the executioner and the victim.

According to Scientific American, decapitation via bladed weapons occasionally required repeated blows, prolonging the victim's agony by a few minutes and making the whole procedure wince-inducing. This led to the development and adoption of the guillotine in the late 1700s, a mechanism designed to sever the victim's head (and life) swiftly. However, there's rather disturbing evidence that the brain can actually live on for a bit post-decapitation, based on tests involving smaller animals (via Seeker). Consciousness may even continue for up to four seconds.