We’d all like to die in a dignified manner, but the Grim Reaper frequently has other plans for our departure

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All I could think of when a searing pain spread across my chest as I sat on a bus last week was “No, no, NO! This is not the way I want to go.” Dying of a heart attack is just so…mundane. And that manner of passing would certainly not earn me a place in any of the Internet’s many lists of bizarre deaths.

Image via Wiki. Photo by Mattana (own work, CC BY 2.0)

My all-time favorite account of a weird exit from this mortal coil was an an accident in 1567 involving Hans Steininger, the mayor of the village of Braunau am Inn in Austria—best known as Hitler’s hometown. Steininger sported a four-and-a-half foot long beard over which he tripped and broke his neck while trying to escape a fire.

Following his death, the townsfolk had an anatomically-correct statue built in his memory, one which suggests he wasn’t much taller than your average garden gnome.

Now let me be clear. What I certainly wouldn’t like to be remembered for is an embarrassing death, like that of Elvis Presley, who reportedly died of chronic constipation in 1977 while seated on a toilet.

Photo by Zarateman/Wikipedia  Creative Commons CC0 1.0

In May 2021, The Guardian reported on the discovery of a body of a man, aged 39, who got trapped in a life-sized model of a Stegosaurus (above) in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a satellite town of Barcelona. The unnamed man somehow managed to get into the dinosaur to retrieve a cell phone and couldn’t get out.

I guess he qualifies for a Darwin Award, a scheme set up to “salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it in a spectacular manner!”

In 2005, I got buried under an avalanche of hate mail after I nominated an American pastor for a Darwin Award. Rev Kyle Lake, 33, was delivering a “Surprise me God” sermon when he stepped into a baptismal font at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and—to the profound shock of a congregation numbering 800—was instantly electrocuted.

I suggested that stepping into water holding an electronic device was the dumbest thing anyone could possibly do, and that Lake was fully deserving of a Darwin Award.
I was described as callous, cold-hearted, and mindless of the feelings of his family and church members. But what made me truly regret publishing the piece was the fact that I later discovered the microphone wasn’t the cause of his death. What killed him was the font’s faulty heating system. 
In 2006 a lawsuit was brought against the company that installed the baptistry heaters. It was found to have been negligent in their design and installation, and his family was awarded undisclosed damages.

In 2018, I again suggested a Darwin Award for another godly goon. But this time I took no flak from readers who were all of one mind: Christian missionary John Allen Chau, 26, had absolutely no business illegally trespassing on the protected Indian-owned North Sentinel Island.

Image via Facebook

On his first attempt to introduce Jesus to the islanders, who are protected from outsiders by law, the admittedly less-than-hospitable Sentinelese shot an arrow at him. The arrow pierced his waterproof Bible and he legged it, but foolishly returned to yell at the inhabitants and throw fish at them, an apparent peace offering. This time, a volley of arrows sent him into the hereafter. 

Before his fatal body-piercing, Chau left no doubt that he was not only stupid but arrogant to boot. In his diary, he wrote ‘Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?’

It was “a foolish adventure”, said P.C. Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University who has studied the islands. “He invited that aggression.”

Before his death, Chau admitted that the visit risked the lives of islanders who have little resistance to many diseases. “A simple thing like flu can kill them,” he said. Really.

In a letter to his family, Chau wrote:

You guys might think I am crazy in all this but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at god if I get killed—rather please live your lives in obedience to whether He has called you too and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil.

This is not a pointless thing—the eternal lives of this [Sentinelese] tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language as Revelation 7:9-10 states. I love you all and I pray none of you love anything in this world more than Jesus Christ.

This is the trouble with missionaries. They automatically assume that anyone who doesn’t share their superstitious beliefs must be “satanic” and in need of “saving.”

It’s a mindset that has led to the ethnocide of millions who were doing pretty darn well until they were introduced to Christianity.

When I posted my report on Facebook, one of many pithy responses came from a fella called Frank O’Callaghan, who wrote:

Condolences to his loved ones. An unnecessary, violent and sad death of a deluded but presumably well-meaning young man. He could have brought devastating disease to such an isolated group. This was just what most ‘missionary’ activity is: ‘self-indulgence, arrogance and ignorance.’

It wasn’t heart failure

I know you’re probably wondering what led to what I thought was a heart attack last Thursday, so here’s the explanation. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had to curtail trips outside my apartment. Having my face or head covered in any way brings on anxiety attacks. This dates back to my early 20s when a burglar entered my home and tried to smother me with a pillow as I lay sleeping. I managed to fight him off and he fled.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, I had to limit my trips outdoors to around 20 minutes, enough time to walk the pooch and grab some groceries. I then received a call from my bank to say I needed to visit their nearest branch to sign some papers.

Deutsche Bank had a branch that was a six-minute bus ride from my apartment, but annoyingly chose to shut it around three years ago, and since then I’ve done all my banking online. Turns out that the nearest branch is now in a Spanish resort called Altea that can only be reached by taking two bus rides, a round trip of almost four hours.

I told an assistant of my problem with face masks and traveling, but she was insistent. If I did not come to the branch, I risked having my account frozen. So I bit on the bullet and made the trip. The bank took some finding. It was hidden in a mainly-residential area miles from the town center—and when I got there it was shut.

So I telephoned the assistant, only to be told that the staff were all out to lunch—at 4pm! When they came strolling back I was told that I would be sent an email that I needed to open and click on a link. The email didn’t come through on my cellphone. At this point the manager took charge, fiddled with my phone’s setting, and then glumly declared that problem was due to the bank not having WiFi.

Under normal circumstances, the sight of a bank manager wandering around a small adjacent park waving my phone in the air would have had me in stitches, but I was less than amused and started hyperventilating.

The matter was finally resolved when the bank agreed to send the email to my husband, who’s a joint account holder. Naturally, I wanted to get home as quickly as possible and lie in a darkened room for several hours, but got hopelessly lost trying to find a bus stop or a taxi rank, and went into full panic mode.

When I eventually did manage to board a bus, the chest pain kicked in, and I had visions of being hauled off to hospital by ambulance. Somehow I managed to remain conscious until the bus came close to a hospital, and I headed for the A&E department where It was ascertained that I was suffering a severe anxiety attack. I was injected with something that relieved the pain, but the after-effects were devastating. For four days I simply could not function at all.

I’m more or less OK now, but I keep looking over my shoulder to see whether the Grim Reaper is lurking in a corner, grinning and waiting to whisk me off to whatever place septuagenarian atheists go after they breathe their last.

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....