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What To Do in the Face of Certain and Imminent Death

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Being in the face of certain and imminent death means you expect to die rapidly. This is rarely an enjoyable situation.

The nature of imminent death means that you don't have time to do much stuff first. So while there are many different actions you can conceivably take, you'll need to choose just one - and quickly - at the time. Sorry, no second chances. For this reason it may be smart to review this list of last-minute ideas thoroughly so you can apply whichever is most appropriate to the situation, should it arise. If you are currently facing certain and imminent death, just skim the headings and act quickly. You won't have much time to regret your choice.

Try to Prevent It

Yes it's certain and imminent, but so what? Anyone who's ever watched a cartoon character fall off a cliff1 knows that every cliff comes equipped with a tree for catching plummeting people. Literature and films are littered with nick-of-time rescues from ghastly demises. When you factor in the ability of modern medicine to resuscitate the clinically dead, it's a marvel that you honestly believe death is imminent and certain. Never lose hope; always look for the tree.

In real life, death row inmate Willie Francis survived his first execution by electric chair and in the resulting confusion, a crusading lawyer appealed his case to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, he was found guilty, there was a second execution, and he did not survive.

With less luck and more sheer guts, Joe Simpson also survived what seemed like certain and imminent death. Stuck in a crevasse in the Andes, several days' crawl from help, dehydrated, with a broken leg, aching contact lenses, and a Boney M song running around in his head, he nonetheless crawled his way to help. Then he optioned his story for a movie (Touching the Void), thereby making a pretty penny out of the whole business. The moral? Never give up.

Become Religious Just in Case

Lots of people have said there are no atheists in foxholes, so even if you're an atheist as you read this in your living room, consider it an option. After all, who wants to find out - just after a traumatic event like death - that you are headed someplace infinitely more uncomfortable, if better heated? Blaise Pascal, 17th-Century philosopher, proved that believing in God is a person's best wager. God has a tradition of accepting last-minute repentance, so it may be a worthwhile investment of your ultimate moments.

People who are already religious have their own ways of meeting death: Muslims often repeat the Shahadah (declaration of faith). Catholics like to have a priest with them for some prayers known as the Sacrament of the Sick. Jews recite the Viduy (confessions) and if they're not dead by then, repeat the Shema (declaration of faith). Protestants prefer to just die, with some variation on the details.

Choosing a specific faith at the last moment is risky, because it forecloses other faiths, and what if you chose wrong? Thankfully, Robert Zelazny composed the Agnostic's Prayer in his novel Creatures of Light and Darkness. This non-denominational prayer is calculated to endear you to any and every deity. Consider laminating a copy and keeping it in your wallet.

Come Up With Snappy Last Words

Excellent dying words will be repeated in your name for years to come. If you have a cause to tout or want to cause a sensation over some topic, make sure to mention it, no matter how irrelevant. In fact, if it's irrelevant or inappropriate it'll get more mention and more publicity, which you want. You may even become a martyr for the cause. Of course, if you're alone or in a foreign country at the time of your death this would be an exercise in futility, but if you think up a really catchy phrase you can always write it down.

In case you are currently facing certain and imminent death and need some inspiration, here are a few examples:

  • 'I am not OK' - Tiny Tim, musician.
  • 'Ne frustra vixisse videar' (May I not have lived in vain) - Tycho Brahe, astronomer.
  • 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death'2 - Thomas Becket, archbishop.
  • 'I am about to - or I am going to - die; either expression is used' - Dominique Bouhours, grammarian.
  • 'Friends applaud, the comedy is over' - Ludwig van Beethoven, composer.
  • 'It's been a long time since I've had champagne' - Anton Chekhov, playwright.
  • 'It's beating - beating - beating - it's stopped' - Albrecht von Haller, physician.
  • 'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country' - Nathan Hale, US revolutionary3.
  • 'Show my head to the people. It is worth seeing' - Georges Jacques Danton, French Revolutionary leader and victim.
  • 'Cheerio!' - Antonio Mancini, gangster.

If you can't think of anything profound to say, maybe take a few moments to make known your wishes to donate your organs to those who can still use them. Many people will be grateful and you ensure yourself a degree of life after death.

Be Graceful or Dramatic About It

Even if death is certain, you still have some say over how you meet it: for example, if you're bound hand and foot and being lowered head-first into a tank of piranhas, you can still choose to thrash and scream, go with quiet dignity, or make silly faces and give the finger as you go down.

If you're trying to make a statement, you'll want to be dramatic about it. Otherwise, focus on going gracefully - preferably not sprawled or twisted across the sidewalk with your clothes askew. In fact, many women make a point of wearing their most presentable underwear when they go out in skirts, in case they get hit by a truck and thrown across the road4. If you're faced with sudden death you can't exactly go change your clothes, but if you have a moment before blacking out, straighten out and try to look peaceful.

Say Goodbye

Saying goodbye and 'I love you' to your loved ones before dying is pretty important - not as much to you, since you won't be thinking about it soon, but to them. It makes your death just a bit less sudden. If you can manage a brief phone call, a hand-squeeze, or even an email or note, you will die with an easier mind and less shell-shocked friends and relatives.

When mountain climber Aron Ralston found himself with an arm pinned between a boulder and a canyon wall, he kept a video diary of his six-day entrapment. As time passed, he became increasingly exhausted and there was no rescue in sight, so he taped farewell messages to his family. Perhaps he realised that even the most poignant farewell is not as good as a live returnee, because eventually he amputated his arm, rappelled one-armed down a hill and marched six miles before someone found him.

Modern camera-phones, video in digital cameras and Bluetooth PDA devices all mean that it is now easier than ever to contact or leave a message for your loved ones in the incident of certain and imminent death. Shimon Biegeleisen, who was working on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001, was in constant telephone contact with his family from the moment the plane hit his tower until the moment it collapsed. Jeremy Glick, a passenger on United Airlines flight 93, informed his wife that he and a group of others intended to rush their hijackers just before his plane crashed in Pennsylvania, leaving her with his declaration of love and a legacy of heroism. Even just a text message explaining how you died (don't make it sound too painful) and expressing your concerns and love for them will comfort the nearest and dearest you leave behind.

Make Sure You Can Be Found

Missing bodies leave families distressed for decades. If you require burial for faith reasons, your missing body is doubly upsetting. If the nature of your death will make your body difficult to locate or recognise, do anything that will make it easier to find or identify. For example, if you expect imminent death by fire, hold in your hand or mouth a metal or fireproof object that will readily identify you. If you're one of those plan-ahead people, take a tip from the military and buy yourself a set of dog tags.

Bring the Sucker Down with You

If your death is at the hands of another person you may experience the natural urge to avenge your murder. Even if you can't kill the person, you can try to create evidence that will lead to his or her imminent and certain arrest and punishment. Some people like to write messages with their blood. If you choose to, make sure the murderer isn't around to edit your copy. And for God's sake5, don't start with any cryptic messages - name or description works just fine.

The Omar Raddad case in France clearly illustrates the dangers of even spelling errors in a dying message. Omar was the gardener of an old lady who was also a crossword fanatic with a thorough knowledge of grammar. One day she was found dead in her garage. Scrawled on the wall in her blood was, 'Omar m'a tuer' - Omar me to kill. The grammatically correct version would have read, 'Omar m'a tué' - Omar killed me. So was the message written by the lady, confused in her last moments, or by her killer, trying to avert the blame to an innocent gardener? Nobody knows, but the moral is clear: get the grammar right!

Cancel the Newspaper

It's not like you'll be needing it anymore.

Go To Sleep

Death while sleeping is considered a peaceful way to go. Why not give it a try? It will comfort your survivors if they can say you were sleeping 'when it happened'. Unless, of course, you're driving at the time.

Just Keep Busy

Imminent and certain death is unpleasant, not least because you have those moments of anticipation before it all ends. If you fill the time prior to your imminent and certain death with any of the above actions it will pass the time easier. People near death should take inspiration from Arlo Guthrie who, after his motorcycle flew over a 500 foot cliff, used the time until landing to write a final song. Dying is rarely fun, but prefacing it with thoughtful action can make it that much less unfun.

Have an easy and pleasant death. And remember: Don't Panic!

1Assuming they're too klutzy to turn around and run back on.2This only works if you are, or become, a Christian.3Again, use discriminatingly.4This also applies to those wussy men who wear something under their kilts.5Speaking of God, this option may interfere with any newfound religiousness, as many religions frown upon revenge.

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