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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/410

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

would be more trying than a most painful death; yet be feels it not. Born in an unconscious state, the brain incapable of receiving conscious impressions, bis entrance into this hitherto unknown world is accomplished during a state of oblivion, known as Nature's anæsthesia:

"Painlessly we come, whence we know not—
Painlessly we go, whither we know not!"

From the earliest period of human history death has been considered as necessarily accompanied by pain; so general is this belief, that the terms "death-agony," "last struggle," "pangs of death," etc., have been in almost universal use in every age and under all conditions of society.

Nothing could be more erroneous; the truth is, pain and death seldom go together—we mean the last moments of life. Of course, death may be preceded by weeks or even months of extreme suffering, as occurs during certain incurable diseases.

So exaggerated has been this notion that it has been considered an act of humanity to anticipate the "death-struggle" by violence; for ages it was customary among the lower classes* of Europe to hasten death by suddenly jerking the pillow from beneath the head of the dying, thus throwing the bead backward, straining the pharyngeal and thoracic muscles, rendering the respiration, already difficult, shortly impossible. A Venetian ambassador, in the time of Queen Mary, asserted that it was a common custom among the country-people to smother the dying by means of a pillow placed over the face, upon which leaned or sat the nearest relative. This was founded upon the pious belief that a short road was the best one. This custom was banded down from generation to generation, parents performing it for their children, and vice versa. But, perhaps, the saddest privilege ever allowed the near friends of a dying man, occasionally occurred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when through executive clemency in executions by hanging they were permitted to grasp the feet of the suspended criminal, and, by clinging to the extremities, precipitate their additional weight on the body, thereby hastening strangulation. It is needless to say that these theories are false in both conception and practice. Death is a physiological process, and like all other animal functions should be painless.

When the fiat of death went forth, Nature kindly provided an anaesthetic for the body. As the end of life draws near, the respirations become slow and shallow, interrupted now and then by a deep, sighing inspiration, as though the lungs were vainly endeavoring to throw off the palsy creeping over them. As the intervals between the inspirations grow longer, the blood becomes saturated with carbonic acid gas the same as that formed from burning charcoal, whose deadly fumes have so often aided the suicide to painlessly destroy life.

While the power of breathing is gradually failing, the heart, which