Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Gentler Symptoms of Dying

GentleDeath can be a difficult process to watch; some deaths more so than others. The death rattle, the sound of the lungs attempting to draw in air through a layer of inhaled saliva, can cause alarm in  many witnesses. With terminal agitation, a dying patient will inexplicably scream and yell in anger, muscles may twitch or spasm, and the body can appear tormented. While terrible to view, difficult and belabored deaths are not necessarily the norm.



The human body's parts are mercifully dependent on one another; the failure of one organ reverberates throughout the entire system. As organs in the torso begin to fail, the direct effect is a similar failing of function in the brain. With this final loss of function, the dying tend to slip slowly into unawareness and then from life. A mysterious exception to this process is known as "terminal lucidity". This is characterized as a short period of lucidity and vibrancy preceding death. This near-miraculous occurrence has been well-documented. In 1922, a 26-year-old woman who had been diagnosed with severe mental disabilities suddenly began singing for half an hour prior to her death. The patient had not spoken a single word for years. The event was witnessed by two prominent physicians and later recounted, separately and during multiple interviews, with identical descriptions. Events of terminal lucidity date back as far as Hippocrates and Plutarch. Nearly 90% of these incidents occur within a week of death. Of these, almost half are witnessed within a day of death. There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the event, but like death itself, terminal lucidity remains shrouded by a fog of mystery.



See Sara Manning, The Gentler Symptoms of Dying, The New York Times, July 11, 2017.



Special thanks to Lewis Saret (Attorney, Washington, D.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.  


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