Deathbed confession

A deathbed confession is an admittance or confession when someone is nearing death, or on their "death bed". This confession may help alleviate any guilt, regrets, secrets, or sins the dying person may have had in their life. These confessions can occur because the dying want to live the last moments of their life free of any secrets they have been holding in for a portion—or entirety—of their life. Or, if religious, the person may perhaps believe they will be forgiven by a higher power before they die, allowing them entrance to a better place, such as Heaven, after death. A deathbed confession can be given to anyone, but a family member is usually with their loved one during this time. Doctors and nurses may also hear a deathbed confession because they are often present in a person’s last moments.[1]

These confessions can range from a confession of sins that have been committed to crimes that have been committed or witnessed. Often, these confessions are made to clear the dying’s conscience. A common type of confession is either religious or spiritually based. On the death bed, the dying will confess sins or mistakes they have made in their lifetime, and ask for forgiveness, so that they may move on to the afterlife according to their religion. Different religions have different protocols for the deathbed confession, but all religions seek to provide relief for the dying.[2] People may also confess their feelings for another person while dying. This can relieve the dying of the internal struggle with hiding how they actually feel for someone. These emotions can range from hatred to love, and everything in between.

Many confessions have involved the admittance of a crime that the dying has committed, which obviously cannot be prosecuted once the perpetrator has died. On the other hand, someone can confess that they have knowledge of or witnessed a crime that has been committed: This kind of confession, known as a "dying declaration", can sometimes be admissible in court to get a conviction, depending on the circumstances of the statement.[3] Another use for a deathbed confession in the criminal justice system is to re-open a case that may have gone cold to get closure for the victim's family or friends, even if prosecution is not an option.



Many terminal patients look to religion or spirituality to bring comfort in their remaining time. Buddhism has been showing up in palliative care more frequently to help patients cope with death and come to peace with the end of their life. Buddhism is a philosophically based religion mainly focused on suffering: why it exists, what causes it, and how to escape it. The belief is that ignorance, anger, and attachment cause inevitable suffering to the body. Buddhism also holds that life and the body is temporary and it is a privilege used to look for enlightenment. Discussing any issues in a patient's life related to suffering can bring inner peace and relief. Buddhism does not seek to manipulate a dying patient into following a religion or forcing dying confessions, but rather to become a thought-provoking way to talk about their suffering and clear themselves of attachment to their body, to prepare for death. Talking about suffering may bring up confessions or secrets that can be released before death to journey towards enlightenment.[4]



Catholic Christians believe that sins must be confessed to a priest before death. The priest, acting In persona Christi,[5] can then absolve the dying of their sins, so that they can be properly prepared for the afterlife.[6] The admittance of sin is important to the dying individual, because this frees them from sin, purifying the soul for a happy afterlife with God in Heaven. These final confessions, sometimes along with the Last Rites, are often performed by a hospital priest or chaplain when a patient's quality of life suddenly declines.

Although confessing near death is encouraged, postponing one's repentance until the end of the life is not. According to Franz Hunolt, this is because: "Firstly: the grace of true repentance and a happy death is far too great for the sinner to expect it in his last moments. Secondly: the sick man is then far too weak to correspond with divine grace, so as to repent sincerely. "[7] In another of his sermons he states, "The sinner who puts off repentance until the hour of death can have no hope of being then converted; because that hope is denied him: 1. by God Himself, 2. by experience."[8] Such a view is also put forward by St. Alphonsus Liguori who writes, "Miserable the sick man who takes to his bed in the state of mortal sin! He that lives in sin till death shall die in sin. "You shall die in your sin." (John viii. 21.) It is true that, in whatsoever hour the sinner is converted, God promises to pardon him; but to no sinner has God promised the grace of conversion at the hour of death. ” Seek the Lord while he may be found." (Isa. iv. 6.) Then, there is for some sinners a time when they shall seek God and shall not find him. “You shall seek me, and shall not find me." (John vii. 34.)"[9]


The Lutheran Church teaches that a sincere deathbed confession can result in the salvation of the penitent.[10]


Hinduism is largely centered around the idea of karma and reincarnation. Good karma allows the soul to move up on the incarnation hierarchy to a better life. Bad karma does the opposite; it causes the soul to have to pay for its actions in this life or the previous one. The next incarnation is less fortunate until the bad karma is cancelled out by good deeds or suffering. This heavy emphasis on karma leads many Hindus to carry out many final acts to improve their chances in the next life and reduce end of life suffering. The main ways Hindus try to increase their karma before moving onto the next life is by apologizing to people, resolving any issues with family or friends, confessions with a guru or other religious figure, religious ceremonies, sacrifices or repentance. Performing all, or some, of these actions allows the patient to think about God, while they pass and prepare for the next life.[11]


The Talmud[12] teaches that "if one falls sick and his life is in danger, he is told: 'Make confession, for all who are sentenced to death make confession.'" Masechet Semachot[13] adds,

"When someone is approaching death, we tell him to confess before he dies, adding that on the one hand, many people confessed and did not die, whilst on the other, there are many who did not confess and died, and there are many who walk in the street and confess; because on the merit of confession you will live."

Native American spiritualityEdit

Many tribes of Native Americans have similar views regarding death. Death is seen as a natural transition, and a part of life. The world is seen as an interconnected web, and a person is an extension of the web, as well as all other life. After death, it is believed by many that the components of your person is returned to the web of life. Making this transition smoothly is important to both the dying, and the loved ones left behind after they have passed on. Ensuring that there are no secrets remaining is vital to a transition back to the web of life.[14]


United StatesEdit

A deathbed confession can be admissible evidence in court under the right circumstances. If someone confesses knowledge of a crime and then dies or their condition worsens, the law does not consider the statement to be hearsay and can be used in a criminal trial.[15]


Emma Alice SmithEdit

Many decades after the 1926 disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Emma Alice Smith in Sussex, a man named David Wright claimed in 2009 that his deceased great-aunt Lillian Smith, a sister of Emma Alice Smith, had told her niece that in the 1950s she had taken a deathbed confession from a man claiming that he had murdered Emma Alice on her way to the train station in Horam. The case was reopened, not to find a killer but to find the body of the young girl to give her a proper burial and give her relatives some closure.[16] In 2011, Sussex Police concluded that despite the alleged deathbed confession, Emma Alice Smith had not been murdered but had in fact eloped with a married man named Thomas Wills. Police concluded the pair had probably ended up in the Republic of Ireland.

Margaret GibsonEdit

On October 21, 1964, 70-year-old retired actress Margaret Gibson suffered a heart attack, and then confessed to the February 1, 1922, murder of film director William Desmond Taylor.

Gibson was never mentioned during the investigation, and no surviving documentation refers to any association between Taylor and her after 1914. All of the police files and physical evidence relating to Taylor's murder disappeared by 1940, and, aside from circumstantial evidence, no confirmation of Gibson's involvement in it has since emerged.[17] However, Gibson's reported confession[18] does not conflict with the known historical record.[19][20]

James WashingtonEdit

In 2012, James Washington admitted to the murder of Joyce Goodener, a 35-year-old Nashville woman who was found dead by firefighters inside an abandoned home 17 years prior. He ended up recovering and was convicted of murder despite trying to recant his confession.[21]

Non-murder confessionsEdit

Deathbed confessions can also include other types of confessions; for example, the acceptance or denial of religious beliefs, financial crimes, or matters of paternity. Deathbed confessions can also be trivial and need not have legal ramifications. Historically, it has been common for religious proponents to allege that non-believers or deists have converted to an orthodox religion upon death. While some deathbed conversions are a matter of public record, there are numerous examples of famous public figures—including Charles Darwin, George Washington, and Voltaire—allegedly converting upon their deathbed. In these particular cases, such allegations have variously been contested or outright disproven.[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Taylor, Elizabeth Johnston (2012). Religion: A Clinical Guide for Nurses. New York: Springer Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8261-0860-9.
  2. ^ Bregman, Lucy (2009). Death and Dying in World Religions. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7575-6838-1.
  3. ^ "Rule 804. Hearsay Exceptions; Declarant Unavailable". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2011-11-30. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
  4. ^ Masel, Eva; Watzke, Herbert; Schur, Sophie (August 2012). "Life is Uncertain. Death is Certain. Buddhism and Palliative Care". Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 44 (2): 307–312. doi:10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2012.02.018. PMID 22871512.
  5. ^ "Rediscovering The «Rite of Penance», NOTITIAE 2015". The Vatican. 24 September 2017. Retrieved 13 December 2021.
  6. ^ "Deathbed Confessions and Conversions". Bible Study Guide. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  7. ^ Hunolt, Franz (1897). "Sermon 12: On The Worthlessness Of A Death-Bed Repentance." . Sermons on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Benzinger Brothers.
  8. ^ Hunolt, Franz (1897). "Sermon 11: On The Vain Hope Of A Deathbed Repentance" . Sermons on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Benzinger Brothers.
  9. ^ Liguori, Alphonus (1882). "Sermon XXXVIII, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: On the death of the sinner" . Sermons for all the Sundays in the year. Dublin.
  10. ^ "Deathbed Conversions". Bethel Lutheran Church. 24 September 2017. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  11. ^ Thrane, Susan (1 November 2010). "Hindu End of Life: Death, Dying, Suffering, and Karma". Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing. 12 (6): 337–342. doi:10.1097/njh.0b013e3181f2ff11. S2CID 76135516.
  12. ^ BT Shabbos 32a
  13. ^ Semachot lit. means "Joyous Occasions" and is used euphemistically to refer to mourning. Semachot is one of the "Smaller Tractates" that records Amoraic and Tannaic statements that were not included in the canon of the Talmud
  14. ^ Anderson, Laurie (17 November 2000). "Workshop teaches Native American views on death, dying and spirituality". The Advocate.
  15. ^ "Rule 804. Hearsay Exceptions; Declarant Unavailable". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2011-11-30. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
  16. ^ Hughes, Jonathan (2015). "Time and Crime: Which Cold-case Investigations Should Be Reheated?" (PDF). Criminal Justice Ethics. 34 (1): 18–41. doi:10.1080/0731129x.2015.1025505. S2CID 146442524.
  17. ^ Just the Facts, the William Desmond Taylor Murder, retrieved January 8, 2008
  18. ^ Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, "Screening Room," April 20, 2000. "...while suffering the heart attack that caused her demise, she [Gibson] told neighbors that she had shot Taylor."
  19. ^ Classic Hollywood Bios, William Desmond Taylor, retrieved January 6, 2008
  20. ^ Taylorology, Taylorology84 (also 85), December 1999, retrieved January 6, 2008
  21. ^ "Inmate James Washington Convicted After Death Bed Murder Confession". ABC News. Retrieved 2022-11-09.
  22. ^ "Deathbed". Retrieved 2022-11-09.