Author Archives: michelle

Cats and Death

For centuries, cats have been associated with death, and how they are perceived varies between cultures. In Western cultures, black cats are associated with bad luck, disease, and witches. This not only led to the mass killing of black cats, but also the “witches” who care for them. But in Ancient Egypt, cats are deified and mummified. (Here is a short list of how cats are linked to the dead, dying, and the ill, and another short summary of black cat myths.) Throughout history people linked cats with death or bad luck, and some of these beliefs still hold true today. But what is it about our beloved cats that makes them so notorious through history? Is it their powerful, stealthy ways that makes them so mysterious? Cats can also be creepy, but creepiness isn’t enough to feed the strong connection people feel between cats and death.┬áCats may have characteristics that link them to death, but perhaps our perception of these strange creatures derive from our experiences with them rather than their traits alone.

Cats, like other animals, are very intuitive and can sense things that humans cannot. For example, their eyesight and sense of smell are more acute than ours. Because cats rely primarily on body language to communicate to one another, they must be attuned to biological and behavioral changes in the other animals around them. This includes detecting weakness or changes in body temperature and odor. They are also intuitive in that they often know when they are about to die. I have heard stories where cats hide or “run away” from home to find a place to pass away peacefully. Therefore, cats are attuned to their bodies and their environment to the point where they can detect signs associated with death.

My kitty.

One extreme example is a cat in Rhode Island named Oscar, who lives in a nursing home. Oscar is known for predicting a patient’s death, and will climb onto the dying patient’s bed and stay with them until they die. Sometimes, Oscar will stay with the patient the day before death, or even a few hours beforehand. Oscar’s behavior sometimes helped notify the staff of a dying patient, and even proved the staff’s predictions to be wrong at times.

How Oscar “knows” when a patient is dying is still a mystery, but experts have their theories. First, Oscar may be smelling chemicals expelled by the dying body that we are not able to detect. The second theory is that Oscar has been imitating the behavior of hospital staff. When the staff predict that someone is dying, their behaviors change and Oscar learned to copy their behavior when a person is dying.┬áRather than finding this occurrence creepy, family members of the dying find Oscar’s presence comforting and the staff find Oscar’s ability helpful.

Have cats earned their reputation partially due to their uncanny ability to detect illness and imminent death? Or is it still because of their characteristics? Is it still mainly due to the eccentric cat ladies of the Salem Witch Trials? Much of Western culture today associate cats with the comfort of home and the warmth of company, but some of these old beliefs still exist. Like death, cats have a certain mystique that we find intriguing, powerful, and sometimes threatening.

Technology can prolong life, but we live to hasten death?

We have discussed the extension of life with new medical technology at great length: we can transplant organs to save a life, perform invasive surgeries to fix an organ, and even keep someone on life support when they fall into a vegetative state. It seems that as technology advances, we have more hope of keeping death away for at least one more day.

Ironically, many Americans live a lifestyle that would decrease their life expectancy. We love our fast food and we love our sodas. (Oh yes, we can’t forget that many of us smoke, too!) And eventually, many of us are diagnosed with diabetes, develop heart problems, and other issues due to our lifestyle. Then we seek help from our doctors and surgeons to fix these problems. According to the CDC, the leading cause of death is heart disease, followed by other preventable issues.

What I see is some kind of a vicious cycle. We slowly bring ourselves close to death – whether we are conscious of it or not – and when we are close, we ask our doctors to add more days to our lives so that we may go back to the things that almost killed us to begin with. Why would do people allow this to happen to themselves? Not only is it painful to suffer from heart disease, but it is also very expensive. Is it because the way people view life, or is death not something we think about on a daily basis? How much do we care about how long we live, or how we die? I have also talked to a friend on this, and we agreed that it is a slow suicide. This irony in our culture was brought to my attention when I found this YouTube video on The Heart Attack Grill (from Nightline, ABC News), which I think embodies this irony well although it is extreme.

The man in this video (the model/spokesperson for the Heart Attack Grill) dies at the age of 29 last year. The life expectancy in America is almost 80 years. And not to mention that another frequent customer in this clip also survived a coma and had several heart surgeries. Medicine has extended this man’s life when he would have died under normal circumstances. (A friend on Facebook updated me that the one in Arizona closed down after someone died.)

If we do not remember our deaths, then perhaps we live as if we are immortal. This seems contradictory to how the Romans viewed life and death. Even when they were enjoying themselves or celebrating for a victorious battle, they were reminded of their own deaths.

Memento mori. Remember you will die.

– Michelle