January 30, 2015
A few months back, a 65-year-old Thai lady went to a crocodile farm near Bangkok. The Samut Prakarn zoo claims to have a staggering 100,000 crocodiles and is popular with tourists. But instead of taking snaps with the sightseers, she gave them something to really photograph (and, of course, they did): she threw herself into a pit that contained hundreds of crocs and was ripped to pieces.
Her family said Mrs Wanpen Inyai had been acting depressed prior to her suicide. What was surprising was that she was the third person to have killed herself in such a horrific way in that crocodile farm alone. Even ten years or so, someone throws themselves to the crocodiles in that same spot.
Suicide is probably the saddest, most desperate act known to humans. All hope is gone, yet the body mechanically carries on, trailing its tortured soul around with it. Most suicides just want it over with, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. In the US, two thirds of the 30,000 or son gun deaths every year are suicides, a fact that means the NRA are helping kill their own constituency and makes them the Dr Kevorkian of lobby groups. But a gun makes sense: you hit a dark spot in your life, and there's a pistol or a shotgun right there. No pain, just an awful mess for your someone else to clean up, which is apparently part of the reason men are far more likely to shoot themselves than women. And there's a pedigree too: Hunter S Thompson and Ernest Hemingway, a tradition going all the way back to honourable Roman generals falling on their swords.
But throwing yourself into a pit of crocodiles? Perhaps she just couldn't think of another way to do it, although Bangkok is not lacking in high-rise buildings or train tracks. Perhaps it was a spur of the moment decision. But crocodiles kill their prey by dragging them underwater and shaking them violently: only when they've drowned do they eat them. It can't be an easy death. In a touching detail, the elderly Mrs Wanpan removed her shoes before jumping into a 10-foot deep pool full of reptiles.
Her death mirrored another bizarre suicide-by-wild-animal report from India that happened, oddly enough, just a week later. A 19-year-old man jumped into Delhi zoo's white tiger enclosure: the tiger naturally did what tigers do. It grabbed him by the neck and shook him till his spine broke, like a cat shaking a mouse. Witnesses said he looked terrified and in pain, although I once read a fascinating account by the explorer Dr Livingston, who described being attacked by a lion in Africa and feeling a strange sense of peace come over him as it locked its jaws around his neck. Someone shot Dr Livingston's lion and he lived to recount the tale: by the time the Delhi zookeepers had located their tranquillizer gun, poor factory worker Maqsood had accomplished his goal and shuffled off this mortal coil.
One reason these tragic stories struck me was that in my science-fiction novel Cronix, people often use wild animals as a way of passing on from this world to the next – which in the book, is an artificial paradise where the digitized souls of humanity can live forever. Once death has been rendered obsolete by technology, it becomes, like so many other taboos before it, the subject of mass commercialisation: South African cage diving with great white sharks is now done without the cage, and environmental activists hike across Arctic wastes to feed themselves to starving polar bears. Other drunken revellers have revived medieval bear pits in Manhattan as an entertaining way to bid adieu to their fleshy selves.
Almost all religions consider suicide a sin, largely as a practical matter: after all, if you've promised your people some perfect paradise, why would they want to hang around in this world of pain and imperfection? If heaven were real, the Earth would be an empty place in pretty short order. So you have to find ways to stop your entire parish from offing themselves (unless you're a Jonestown death cult, in which case you prepare the drinks). This social stigma probably adds to the sadness and confusion of the person killing themselves. But it's difficult to know, since so few people who are about to kill themselves ever explain why they did it: suicide notes are rare and more often than not simply deal with practical matters that the person wants to tidy up before they go, such as where they left the car keys, or bank details.
In Cronix, death becomes a carnival ride, and the newly deceased are in immediate conversation with those still left behind. Heaven is whatever you want it to be. The concept came from the theoretical science of mind uploading, which may one day come to pass. In the meantime, alas, it's still depressed teenagers on the Golden Gate bridge, ailing authors with a shotgun and a bottle of Jack, or an old lady carefully removing her shoes on the wooden walkway above a crocodile pen.