In this episode I look at the phenomenon of people who predict their own death. I will also share a few stories of famous people who predicted their own deaths.
Svecchāmṛtyu: Sanskrit स्वेच्छामृत्यु Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svecch%C4%81m%E1%B9%9Btyu
Twain death Prediction Information: http://americanliteraryblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/death-of-mark-twain.html
Maravich death prediction information - https://historyofyesterday.com/6-notable-people-who-predicted-their-death-with-accuracy/
Death Clock webpage https://www.death-clock.org/
deCode Genetics research https://www.decode.com/predicting-the-probability-of-death/
Online Too to help predict death date https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/601982
NBC News Story on predicting early death https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/ai-can-predict-when-someone-will-die-unsettling-accuracy-ncna988136
JAMA article about predicting death.. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2763659
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” - Hunter S. Thompson
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” - Isaac Asimov
"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale." -Hans Christian AndersenSupport the show
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Hunter S. Thompson wrote,
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!”
Welcome to The Soul Podcast. I’m Stacey Wheeler.
This morning I work before dawn thinking about death. And more specifically, people who predict their own deaths. This is how the universe sometimes picks my topic. I wake up intrigued by an idea. I think most of us have heard stories (usually told second-hand) about Yogis or other holy people of places like India or Nepal, who predicted the day they will die. Sometimes, they say… the person even predicts the time.
Research around this phenomenon (or confirmed cases) are hard to come by. Though there is some. Maybe the Eastern fixation with this comes from the story shared about the Buddha predicting his own death (also, unconfirmed). Of course, it’s been thousands of years and the historical story of the Buddha was shared orally for maybe a hundred years or more before being written down. Since religious philosophies tend to favor a touch of the mystical, who’s to say if the Buddha actually did predict his own death.
Just the same, I find the idea that a person might be able to predict their own death intriguing. Sitting in my bed, too awake for that hour… I started to wonder how much truth there was to these sorts of claims. And my phone was right there, and so was the Brave browser. So, I started searching. And there’s a lot out there about this than I realized. And not all of it comes from the Far East. But let’s start there.
The Far East
There’s a word in Sanskrit, Svecchāmṛtyu (in the Sanskrit language: स्वेच्छामृत्यु) (Sva + iccha + mrityu). It is an adjective which means - having death at one’s own power or dying at one’s own will. It is also sometimes called Icchāmṛtyu (इच्छामृत्यु) meaning "self-willed death" but not to be confused with immortality or self-inflicted death. How interesting.
The idea of having power over the day you will die is so well accepted in that region of the world that they have a word for it. We must remember also, that in these cultures there is a strong belief in reincarnation. So, death isn’t looked at as we in the West typically look at death. In the East, death is the end of one life before the start of another. A prediction of your own death in the West has more of an ominous feel to it. For many in our culture, death is the end.
But this group of people have a word for it. And this is a concept that goes back thousands of years -possibly before recorded history. Probably before written language.
Cases of predicting one’s own death in this region of the world are easy to find but hard to corroborate. This is not to say they can’t be believed. After all, if a person has a true guru spirit, they would not seek notoriety for making such a prediction. Any prediction would rightly be made to those close to them… perhaps family and devotees. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that cases like these are spoken of after the fact, rather than before.
One case we can look at that’s more modern is that of Swami Vivekananda. He was the spiritual guru who played a major role in the introduction of Vedanta and Yoga in the western world around the turn of the century. Vivekananda said that he would not live more than 40 years. His prediction came true on July 4, 1902. It’s said that he went to his room that evening, asking not to be disturbed, and never came out. He is said to have died about 9:10 pm while meditating. He was 39 years old. So, he was right, He did not live to be 40.
It’s also worth noting that traditionally, in India, people classify deaths in one of two ways— timely death (Su-mrutyu) and untimely death (Akaal Mrutyu). If a yogi left his or her body consciously at the age of thirty nine, we don’t say it is untimely. It is timely for them because they decide the time. So, the way they look at death is subtly different from the way people in the West look at death.
The writer Mark Twain, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was born in 1835. In that year Halley’s comet passed the Earth at a very close distance. In 1909, when Twain was in his 70s, he declared that he would die the next time Halley’s comment passed the Earth.
He said at the time,
"I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet.”
On the 20th of April 1910, the comet once again passed earth and Twain was right: he died of a heart attack the next day - on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet's closest approach to Earth.
My first thought is, ‘Well, Twain was at an age where people often died. It’s not so odd that he might have an idea of his approaching death and make a guess that it could happen in a year’s time. But to predict within 24 hours? I have to wonder if we can make a conscious choice to leave the body when we’re ready.
A more intriguing account comes from someone you may have heard of if you were a basketball fan in the 1970s. Pete Maravich was a talented NBA player. Top of the sport when in 1974 he declared in an interview that he did not want to play more than 10 years in the NBA and that he would most likely die at the age of 40 due to a heart attack. To be clear, Maravich had never been diagnosed with a heart condition so, it was an oddly specific suggestion that he’d die that way.
He kept playing professional basketball for another six years and in 1980 he quit just as he had declared (after 10 years of playing in the NBA).
On the 5th of January 1988, when Maravich was 40 years old, he had a heart attack while playing basketball with a few friends and he died. Just as he predicted.
These cases are especially interesting because they are well-documented, so no one seems to argue that Twain and Maravich predicted their own deaths. These are cases of people who were famous, so they stand out.
If you’re like me, maybe you’ve heard stories like these told about relative or family friends, who also predicted their own death. Because they aren’t famous -maybe they don’t seem as note-worthy. But most people aren’t famous, so I think they are a more interesting case study. There’s less cause to make up such a story about someone who is not well-known. So, to me they seem more believable. And because a person isn’t famous, they don’t get the opportunity to go on record (as in an interview) with a statement like that. It’s something they are more likely to say in passing to a loved one.
So why am I talking about all this death prediction stuff? I wonder if the ability to predict your moment of death is evidence of the Soul. It seems that cultures with a belief in reincarnation tend to fear death less. And in fearing death less, perhaps they are able to connect more with their deeper self… through meditation or other forms of quiet reflection. And in finding that balance, are reminded that this life is temporary. That this is a journey that has a beginning, and an end. But it is not the end.
Isaac Asimov wrote,
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
The transition is what trips most of us up… and that fear of the end.
And this brings up an interesting question about knowing when you will die. If you could know, would you want to? Would there be a benefit to knowing… or would it all be bad news for you?
In recent years there have been a lot of researchers trying to perfect the ability to predict mortality in individuals. If we look farther back, we find it’s been going on for hundreds of years. But we seem to be getting better at it.
A company called deCODE Genetics has been working on a blood test to predict likelihood of death. And they say they are getting good at it. There are websites that claim to have online tools to help predict death dates. Deathclock.org is one. It seems to be for amusement, rather than anything else. But others are intended to be tools to help with end of life planning for the death of elderly or infirmed loved ones. The idea being, if you know when someone will likely die, it’s easier to make financial plans around it.
In 2019 NBC published a news story called AI can predict when someone will die with unsettling accuracy. It profiled an organization that had developed an artificial intelligence algorithm, which it said could predict with 76% accuracy, the early death of subjects who participated in their study.
To be clear, this AI didn't guess the date, only that the subjects would die sooner than the average expected life span.
And in 2020, the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article called The Uncertain Science of Predicting Death.
So, we can see how the human fascination with death makes its way into research and culture.
But would you want to know, if you could? I mean, if there were a way to know for certain, the day, week or month you would die… would you want to?
Would knowing the date of your death would make your life more full… or more frightening?
We all understand that life is finite. We’re born then we die. And Asimov argues “It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
You and I are in that transition right now. We have no guarantee of a moment past this one.
Is it enough to know that life is finite… that we are mortal. And to know that every moment is a gift?
My greatest peace and joy are found when I can be still and enjoy the moment, I am in. And these are best found when I understand every moment is precious. It takes practice. It takes intention. Remembering I’m mortal helps.
What if you did know the date of your death? Would it change the way you lived -for the better, for the worse?
I invite you to live your life today, appreciating the little moments. Pause and reflect on the fragility of life. Feel love for those who have shared their love with you. And understand that every breath is a gift.
That breath… the one you just took. And the one you are taking now… a gift.
We may not know the date of our deaths, but we know that in this moment we are alive. Cherish this moment. Every conversation, every scent, every bright color… and the feel of the sun on your skin.
Embrace the uncomfortable cold and the repellant smells of life. Enjoy frustration, anger, annoyance and inconvenience. That your can be bothered means you’re still alive.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote, "Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale."
And I agree. Fairytales, like life are fraught with peril. The fairytale ride is enjoyable and fulfilling. If we embrace the ride of life, we can enjoy the ride. In life, in the end, all is resolved. Just like the fairytale. Maybe the key difference is in life we die happily ever after.