Death rattle

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cf. Death growl, a vocalization style used in heavy metal music.

A death rattle is a gurgling or rattle-like noise produced shortly before or after death by the accumulation of excessive respiratory secretions in the throat.

Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow, resulting in such an accumulation. While it is medically established that the death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, for instance, brain injuries.

It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death. In terminal care, drugs such as hyoscine hydrobromide or atropine may be used to reduce secretions and minimise this effect.

Death rattle may also be used to refer to machines. A machine (usually an engine) with death rattle typically suffers from a spun bearing or other major mechanical failure, causing it to make strange noises.

Literary use

Widespread understanding of the significance of the death rattle has led to its common use in literature.

In common parlance we call it a "death rattle." It is one of those terms that through use has passed into the realm of fantasy so that many no longer believe it is an actual biological phenomenon. In fact, it is. Forensics experts tell us that the death rattle is the result of involuntary spasms in the vocal box brought on by the increased acidity in the blood following death. The noise itself is alternately described as a loud bark or whooping rasp emitted by a victim sometime after death.
Steve Martini, The Judge, page 362
"If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Presently his fingers began to pick busily at the coverlet, and by that sign I knew that his end was at hand. With the first suggestion of the death rattle in his throat he started up slightly, and seemed to listen; then he said:
"A bugle?...It is the king! The drawbridge, there! Man the battlements!—turn out the—"
He was getting up his last "effect"; but he never finished it.
Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
"Next morning, around six o'clock, the servant entered the room with a candle. He found his master lying on the floor, the pistol beside him, and blood everywhere. He called, he touched him; no answer came, only a rattling in the throat."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "The Sorrows of Young Werther"
"Life, like a child, laughs, shaking its rattle of death as it runs."
Rabindranath Tagore
"I think I may have dropped off into a light sleep, but my senses were still wide awake, and i suddenly startled into intense consciousness by a hurried, angry sound, the most awe-inspiring sound anyone can hear, the Death Rattle."
W. Somerset Maugham "The Razor's Edge"
"...but the baby's crying, and its death rattle were heard, and they were discovered."
Wladyslaw Szpilman "The Pianist"

Uses in music

  • In the band Tool's 2006 single "Vicarious", the lyrics say "Stare at the transmittal/Sing to the death rattle."
  • In "Aqualung", Ian Anderson sings: "And you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea-diver sounds..."

Uses in film and television

  • In Red vs Blue, the machinima series by Rooster Teeth Productions, the death rattle is almost always used whenever a character dies, and is performed in a very distinctive way. Since all the characters are portrayed by video game avatars, and are only capable of limited types of movements and almost no visual expressions, the death rattle is needed to indicate that a character has actually died and isn't simply lying down or unconscious.
  • The character Marla Singer in Fight Club asks the narrator if he wants to stay on the phone and listen to her death rattle after she attempts to commit suicide.
  • In The Pianist a Jewish woman crying "Why did I do it?" was explained to have been hiding from the Nazis during the clearing of the ghetto with her baby. Her baby began to cry, she smothered it to avoid detection, but was found because the soldiers heard the death rattle.
  • When a murder victim suddenly gurgles in the second episode of Dexter, a medic is called over and informs Dexter and a detective that it is simply a death rattle.
  • In the online game Urban Dead, Death Rattle is a skill which may be purchased by zombie players, and allows the zombie limited speech with others possessing the skill.

External links