Three decades ago, great strides were made in the area of “death research,” a field that continues to grow as interest in the end of life escalates. (The looming departure of tens of millions of baby boomers over the next few decades has much to do with this.) Researchers of the early 1980s were especially interested in the possibility that people could choose a particular time to die, either consciously or unconsciously. Anecdotal accounts certainly suggested there was a chance it could be so, with many stories of people deciding it was time to call it quits and then doing just that.
One apparently true one had to do with an 80-year-old retired bank executive who told his son to “take good care of your mother,” transferred ownership of his assets to his family, ate a plate of ravioli (his favorite meal), and then closed his eyes and died. Another well-documented one was about a healthy man in his seventies who gathered his family, said “I don’t need anything anymore,” and died just after completing his bequests.
Not just anecdotal evidence but scholarly research suggested there might be something to it all. The medical journal The Lancet reported the case of a 40-year-old woman with chest pains who accurately told nurses and her clergyman that she would die exactly a week later on May 28th (the second anniversary of her mother’s death), and the scholarly journal Omega published two studies indicating the significantly higher likelihood one would die right before or right after one’s birthday. (One study showed that the approach of a birthday prolonged life for a short time among women but hastened death among men, suggesting that birthdays serve as a “lifeline” for the former and a “deadline” for the latter.) The Harvest Moon Festival was another such lifeline for Chinese Americans, another study showed, as was Passover for religious Jews. Then there was the case of Sigmund Freud, who happened to have died on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Did the date have something to do with the lifelong guilt he felt about his brother’s death at six months of age when he was twenty-three months old, shrinks and some non-shrinks wondered?