Patients' diverse beliefs about what happens at the time of death

Henry S. Perkins, Josie D. Cortez, Helen P. Hazuda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: Beliefs about what happens at the time of death surely affect a patient's whole dying experience and could help guide end-of-life care. Yet virtually no research describes those beliefs. This exploratory study begins the descriptive process. Methods: Assuming culture is key, we interviewed 26 Mexican-American (MA), 18 Euro-American (EA), and 14 African-American (AA) inpatients about their beliefs concerning what happens at the time of death. Results: One belief, that death separates the dead from the living, was widespread. Majorities of all 3 ethnic group samples and of 5 of the 6 gender subsamples expressed this belief, saying the dead "go" or "leave" from this life. Other beliefs differed by ethnic group or gender. For example, more EAs (50%) than others said death is a momentary event, and more MAs (35%) than others said death involves "being taken" by an external force (always God or Jesus). Furthermore, considerably more EA women (45%) than others said some senses persist after death. In contrast, the physiologic signs that participants cited as defining the exact time of death varied from individual to individual with no ethnic or gender pattern, and no one sign predominated. Conclusions: A few beliefs about what happens at the time of death may characterize Americans in general; many other beliefs may characterize only certain ethnic groups, genders, or individuals. To identify such beliefs and to use them to guide end-of-life care, hospitalists and other health professionals may have to elicit them directly from patients or survivors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)110-116
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of hospital medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Fundamentals and skills
  • Care Planning
  • Assessment and Diagnosis
  • Health Policy
  • Leadership and Management
  • Internal Medicine


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