Humans have always desired to break free from the "custody of time," to shed the anxiety engendered by uncertainty over the time of one's own death. The creation of death omens in nearly all cultures has, perhaps, arisen from a deep-seated yearning to quell this gnawing doubt. Such omens might take several various forms: the prediction of approaching death may be connected with specific dreams (whitewashing, tooth extraction, the fence falling, drowning in muddy water, and so on) or to the strange behavior or sudden appearance of certain animals (e.g., hens crowing or a visit from an owl, which are called "death-birds" in many cultures). Some death omens not only predict the fact of approaching death but also disclose its location and precise circumstances.

The following function analysis intends to examine the syncretic death omens of European peasants (the above mentioned examples are also taken from the experience of this cultural segment), in which both Christian and non-Christian elements may be found.

The Structure of Omen Beliefs

In traditional European peasant societies—the main focus of the ensuing remarks—death omens have functioned as a kind of code recognizing mechanism and as a guide to action. The most important task of code recognition is for the individual to connect and store the knowledge concerning the interdependence of the signifier, the signified, and the traditional meaning of the symbol as cultural code. This interdependence is necessary for the observer, for instance, to be able to associate the hooting of the owl landing upon the granary (as signifier) with death (as signified) and to draw a conclusion from the association that is considered conventional by the given culture.

Action strategies fall into three categories: The first category is group of communication rules that define the way in which the news of the omen may spread. It is a generally accepted rule that nobody should talk about bad dreams before sunrise and that news of bad omens should not be given to a dying person, especially someone in great pain, so that the victim should not fear that the relatives are looking forward to his or her death. Such omens are discussed among the neighbors or distant relatives. Nevertheless, if the critically ill person's condition is worsening—and the relatives seem to reject the possibility of the approaching exit—the neighbors may send for the priest to prevent the dying person from leaving this life without receiving the last rites.

Additionally, action strategies contain a preventive-evasive behavior model. Following such a model, the observer of the omen may try to prevent the impending death by means of various sacred magical rites. Prayers to saints, in particular to Saint Job, are said to cast off the realization of death-prophesying dreams. These should be offered immediately after awakening, before sunrise, or facing the rising sun. Praying in a group, crossing, practicing charity, asking the priest to say a mass—or a combination of the foregoing—are also frequently applied preventive measures.

If nobody is seriously ill or elderly in the neighborhood and the observer cannot therefore infer who the target of the omen is, he will decide to wait and will warn his family members to be exceedingly cautious. If the bad dream or other omen is not followed by a death until the end of the consensually established "incubation" period (generally three days, three weeks, or three months), the omen will cease to have any significance in the future.

Should the preventive-evasive acts prove ineffective, or if they seem worthless because of the advanced state of illness, an awaiting-preparing behavior model will be activated. If it can be inferred who is about to die in this case, the omen urges the observer to start realizing the possibility of an impending death and to measure its consequences.

On the other hand, the omen might warn the observer to prepare for the ritual group activity following the onset of death (e.g., vigil, funeral feast, burial) and to provide for the spiritual needs of the dying person (such as receiving the last rites). Consequently, the main purpose of the systems of behavior and beliefs connected with the portents is to ensure that neither the observer nor his immediate environment (nor indeed the dying person) is left entirely unprepared for the challenges of the approaching crisis.

The omens of death contain code recognizing techniques and sophisticated action strategies that are developed and inherited through direct communication. The latter constituent involves communicative rules as well as preventive-evasive and awaiting-preparatory behavioral instructions intended to prevent the realization of the ill omen and prepare all the affected members of the community for the approaching loss.

The Role of Death Omens in the Death Rituals

There are three partially overlapping, organically social and psychological functions of death omens. First, the conditioned sphere of activity in life periods when the observation of omens is not followed by death (within the culturally regulated "incubation period"); second, the realizationrationalization-preparation occurring in the crisis period preceding death; and, finally, the reorganizational function during the period of mourning.

Unfulfilled Omens

If approaching death cannot be anticipated by any other means than the observed omen, the observers will pay special attention to the surroundings, lamenting whomever the ill omen could refer to. When they cannot attribute the omen to a definite person, they forget it. In this way "there are always a few individuals in the community who are in a 'state of being warned.'" (Kunt 1980, p. 326) Although a number of omens remain unfulfilled, the individuals are never discouraged and do not consider this fact a failure of the omens' functioning mechanism. These omens are forgotten, and the next omen is received in the usual way.

In the state of "being warned," the observer individual recalls all the basic beliefs and behavior instructions of peasant attitudes toward death (the above mentioned action strategies; the belief in resurrection or heaven as "healing theories") that help to prevent the occurrence of death or conduce to survive the event with the smallest possible shock. In this way a background of worries triggering the observation of the omen or activated by the observation is brought to the "surface" in a culturally regulated frame and may be kept partially under cultural control.

In order to avoid a possible disturbance caused by the unfulfilled omen and to prevent the emergence of doubts about the reality and validity of omen beliefs, the peasant community has a number of plausible and unquestionable explanations at hand that help to interpret the situation in a "reassuring way." It is generally agreed that the absence of death is attributed to the devout intervention of transcendent powers (St. Job or Jesus). Occasionally it is explained by the success of danger-averting magic activities (i.e., killing the crowing hen.) The generally accepted interpretation is that the clearing of the danger is not due to "malfunctioning" of the omen but to the favorable influence and mercy of transcendent powers.

It is precisely for this reason that if the omen is not followed by a death within the conventionally accepted "incubation" period, the "preshock" state results in a new equilibrium, relegitimizing the faith in the basic Christian regulating principles of the peasant world-and-death concept, and the particular omen is forgotten. (Naturally, the omen may well be related to deaths occurring years after its appearance.)

In that case the omen's conditioning function becomes significant, which serves to strengthen fundamental principles, beliefs of peasant death concept (belief in life after death and resurrection, adhering to the prescriptions of Christian ethics, and so on). This is precisely why all unfulfilled omens are "really a symbolically expressed 'Memento mori' " (Kunt 1980, p. 327).

Omens Appearing Immediately Prior to Death

In traditional accounts, members of peasant communities are far more likely to observe omens portending death (especially in the form of negative dreams) if they have been tending a seriously ill or dying relative. In this period, anticipation of death may be more manifest in the dream-work, which makes possible the activation of the realization function. In the European peasant communities predictions based upon dreams have always been considered an accepted, legitimate method of gaining knowledge of reality. The world of dreams is outside the observer; it is interpreted as an authentic and objective system of prophecy. Thus, dreams as widely accepted form of knowledge, are particularly suitable for transforming negative fore-boding into a realization of the inevitability of the impending death; they foretell and realize the fact of death of the ill relative in the form of a confirming feedback.

Traditional explanations about omens that appear immediately before death may contain estimates of the expected length of the expected interval before the onset of death. It is a common belief, for example, that the strange behavior of animals only briefly precedes the onset of death— twenty-four hours at the most. The last phase of dying is marked by the death-bed visions (Kastenbaum 2000; Parkes 1998; Rososenblatt, Walsh, and Jackson 1976; Zaleski 1987) in which the deceased relatives of the ill person appear and he or she talks to them aloud, tussles with them. (The arrival of deceased relatives is signaled by such events as the door of the dying person's room opening by itself or by the mirror falling from the wall.) The family standing around the deathbed interprets this phenomenon of visitation by the dead as if the deceased are waiting for the dying person, calling him or her to them, and that after the person's departure from this life it is they who will lead the way to the other world.

The significance of the rationalizing function exemplified above is that through the approximate time coordinates built upon traditional experience, death omens play a significant part in distinguishing the stages of the dying process. In this sphere of activity at least two advantageous effects are worth mentioning.

The first is that these time coordinates mark the events leading up to death as a gradual process and are thus able to alleviate the elemental feeling of anxiety connected with the unpredictability of the exact time of the death. Second, these temporal reference points may help the relatives to carry out their duties properly because their observation has an activating function; they urge and warn the observers to fulfill their tasks accompanying the final stages of death (i.e., calling for the priest to perform the last rites). In this way the omens immediately preceding death have a preparatory role as well: They inform the immediate environment of the dying person of the approaching death, and they prompt the family to start accustoming themselves to the situation and to concentrate their spiritual energy.

The survival of portents appearing immediately prior to death is primarily due to the fact that they were able to provide approximate points of reference and time coordinates in cases where official Christian guidance regarding the crisis period left people without counsel (or the guidance provided tended to be generalizing and impersonal). In other words, these omens essentially filled the "blank areas" of Christian interpretations of the death process.

Retrospective Interpretation: The Reorganizational Function

Often, in peasant death culture, after the last respects are paid to the next of kin, close neighbors convene to discuss and evaluate the events in the crisis period leading to the death. These discussions cover the portents of death, the process of dying, the number of people attending the funeral, their behavior, and so on.

Several studies have made it clear that in such discussions a number of events and episodes were identified as omens that had not been deemed as such earlier—occasionally because they trusted in the sick person making an unexpected recovery, so they tried to ignore any signs to the contrary.

This process, defined as retrospective meaning attribution, may contribute significantly to the success of the grief-work process, the fast and successful modification of the survivor's "assumptive world to incorporate loss, thereby achieving a new sense of normalcy and purpose" (Gilbert 1995, p. 310).

Its foremost support in the grief work is in the way in which the closest relatives build into their memory of the dying process motifs retrospectively identified as omens, thereby partly modifying their original impressions. The retrospectively incorporated omens are interpreted in the final, modified narrative about death as indicator elements (which help the survivors to cut the process of dying into discrete segments), thus helping to alleviate the relative's own painful vulnerability to death.

Through retrospective meaning attribution the close relatives partly rewrite their memories of the dying process, unconsciously adapting it to the prerequisites of successful grief work by comprehending the process of departure in a manner more rational and foreseeable than reality—thus facilitating the coping with loss.

However, if the dying person was not cared for properly (e.g., could not receive the last rite because the family misinterpreted the situation), the evaluation of omens may also bring about remorse—and that could lead to a breakdown in grief work and the appearance of pathological reactions.


While all omens preceding death are considered to be elements of rites of separation (Gennep 1960; Littlewood 1993), retrospective meaning attribution incorporates rites that help to humanize and rationalize the preserved impressions of dying and death; it also fosters the development of a new relationship between the surviving kin and the departed individual by transforming their relationship into "an inner representation based on memory, meaning and emotional connection" (Romanoff and Terenzio 1998, p. 701). It may also facilitate the mourners' early reintegration into the wider community, into the traditional order of peasant life, and help to strengthen their faith in its essential principles and values.

See also: Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Grief: Anticipatory, Theories ; Near-Death Experiences ; Memento Mori


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