Destination in sight

by

In literature, foretelling death is the kind of ability alternately regarded as a curse or a blessing; the former because seeing the end without being able to avoid it drives home the sense of inevitability, the latter because there is always hope that premature death can be guarded against or postponed. Though methods of predicting human death have evolved from mystic to scientific, there still remain some unexplained phenomena which suggest that being able to sense impending death could be an intrinsic human ability.

The notion of being able to predict death has been around for as long as human civilization has been in existence, though the means to do so have varied considerably throughout history. For example, pre-modern culture would employ extispicy, or entrail divination, to foretell future events, including when an individual might die. Variations of the practice would appear throughout recorded history, some with a focus on specific animal organs, or, in extreme cases, on humans. However, as distasteful as the latter was, it is believed to have served as the conceptual precursor to modern day autopsy practices, which is now an indispensable component of medical and forensic investigations.

Perhaps death detection is more instinctive and primal, as opposed to being the result of elaborate divination rituals, with all its rules and exceptions. Indeed, animals have demonstrated an innate ability to anticipate the passing of life. In one such remarkable case, a cat adopted by the staff at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island was able to consistently identify terminal patients who were hours away from passing. With an impeccable track record, “Oscar” established a routine such that he would curl up beside patients in their last moments, purring softly until their last breath, at which point he would quietly get up and leave. This was noted by one of the physicians, Dr. Dosa, in attendance at the time, and became the intriguing subject of both an article in the New England Journal of Medicine and later, a book that documented Oscar’s unique ability in the context of Dr. Dosa’s medical practice.

It is entirely possible that Oscar’s abilities are more biological than paranormal, considering that the human body’s biochemistry may change dramatically in an antemortem time frame. Animals with a heightened sense of smell would be able to detect minute chemical changes given off  by someone in their last moments and perhaps respond accordingly. In the case of Oscar the cat, his actions took the form of what some considered comforting behavior. But perhaps this ability is not restricted to animals such as Oscar the cat. Reports from critical care and intensive care health professionals suggest that human beings are able to develop this sense as well, though evidence remains more anecdotal than empirical. When asked to describe how one can tell when a person is about to die, answers have ranged from “you just know” to “it’s almost like there’s something in the air”. Does this suggest that humans have an innate capacity to sense death? Or is it more of a learned response, where surreptitious cues such as changes in behavior and physiology of a terminally ill patient are subconsciously processed by an observer, resulting in “intuitive” recognition of someone’s final moments?

Modern medical science has devised a number of methods and approaches to quantify death’s approach. Tests that evaluate cardiac function, respiratory capacity, neurological activity- these are just a few of the many invaluable tools that assist medical professionals in deciding how to care for their patient, particularly as they approach the end of their life. But being able to detect death apart from technology may speak to something more innate to our human makeup, and is not an ability as morose as it might first appear. After all, if Oscar the cat is capable of exhibiting comforting behavior when he detects death, a fellow human being, capable of a much more complex expression of compassion can provide the type of emotional support required in such situations. That being the case, such an ability, regardless of whether it is biological or paranormal in nature, is nonetheless of inestimable value to the development of human empathy.

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