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No. 94: Jul-Aug 1994

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LACRIMA MORTIS: THE TEAR OF DEATH

It must be a heart-wrenching experience to see a single tear roll down the cheek of a person at the moment of his or her death. I. Lichter, medical director of the Te Omanga Hospice, in New Zealand, wondered how often this phenomenon occurred and why. Working with the Hospice nursing staff, Lichter followed 100 patients nearing death.

"The results showed 14 patients shed a final tear at the time of death, and a further 13 within the last 10 hours of life.

"In 21 of the 27 cases, the dying person was unconscious at the time of the last tear. And in all but one case the tear was shed by patients whose death was expected rather than sudden."

Lichter and colleagues wondered if the death-bed tears were emotional in origin or perhaps caused by a reflex action. Notes made by the nursing staff were inconclusive on this matter. Lichter thought of chemically analyzing some of the last tears, because emotional tears have a different chemical composition from those produced by irritation. Unfortunately, a single tear was insufficent for the analysis.

(Morrison, Alastair; "The Mystery of the Death-Bed Tear," Wellington Dominion, August 11, 1993. Cr. P. Hassall)

From Science Frontiers #94, JUL-AUG 1994. 1994-2000 William R. Corliss