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April 11, 1990

Postponement of Death Until Symbolically Meaningful Occasions

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla

From the Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla

JAMA. 1990;263(14):1947-1951. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440140073034

This study shows that mortality dips before a symbolically meaningful occasion and peaks just afterward. Mortality among Chinese (n = 1288) dips by 35.1% in the week before the Harvest Moon Festival and peaks by the same amount (34.6%) in the week after. We chose to study mortality among Chinese and a Chinese holiday for two reasons. First, the holiday moves around the calendar, thus allowing separation of the effects of the holiday from fixed, monthly mortality effects. Second, the holiday appeals strongly to one (experimental) group and not to others (which can be used as control groups). In terms of percentage, cerebrovascular diseases displayed the largest dip/peak pattern, followed by diseases of the heart, and then malignant neoplasms. The dip/peak mortality pattern does not appear in various non-Chinese control groups. The statistical significance of the findings was demonstrated with linear and curvilinear regression analysis and with two nonparametric tests. After testing alternative explanations for the findings, we concluded that the dip/peak pattern occurs because death can be briefly postponed until after the occurrence of a significant occasion.

(JAMA. 1990;263:1947-1951)