Death from laughter is a rare form of death, usually resulting from cardiac arrest or asphyxiation, caused by a fit of laughter. Instances of death by laughter have been recorded from the times of ancient Greece to the modern day. Certain brain injuries can cause pathological, uncontrollable laughter such as infarction of the pons and medulla oblongata.
Laughter can cause atonia and collapse (‘gelastic syncope,’ a short episode of low blood pressure caused by laughter), which in turn can cause trauma. Gelastic seizures, a rare type of seizure that involves a sudden burst of energy, usually in the form of laughing or crying, can be due to focal lesions to the hypothalamus. Depending upon the size of the lesion, the emotional lability (mood swings) may be a sign of an acute condition, and not itself the cause of the fatality. Gelastic syncope has also been associated with the cerebellum.
Zeuxis, a 5th-century BCE Greek painter, is said to have died laughing at the humorous way he painted the goddess Aphrodite – after the old woman who commissioned it insisted on modeling for the portrait. 3rd century BCE Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus reportedly died of laughter after he saw a donkey eating his figs; he told a slave to give the donkey neat wine with which to wash them down, and then, ‘…having laughed too much, he died.’
In 1410, the King of Sicily, Martin of Aragon, died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter. In 1556, Pietro Aretino, Italian satirist, ‘is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much.’ In 1660, Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath and first translator of François Rabelais’s writings into English, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne. In 1799, William Cushing, a pauper who lived in the parish of St Andrew’s, Norwich, England, died from ‘a fit of excessive laughter, which lasted five minutes.’ In 1893, farmer Wesley Parsons laughed to death over a joke told in Laurel, Indiana. He laughed for nearly an hour. He then died two hours after the incident.