Tag Archives: death

Dark Humor in the ICU (“Celestial Transfer”)

Informant Context:

Stella is a traveling ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who currently work in Atlanta, Georgia.


STELLA: I feel like people in the ICU especially have like, really dark humor. Um… like, dark kind of like—twisted humor? And I think like, you kind of like, have to be that way. Like, it’s like, it’s kind of the saying of like, “If you’re not laughing you’re crying?” Like, the things that we see are so tragic that like, we kind of just have to like, make light of them? And it’s not ’cause like, we’re like, making fun of people is just like… “Wow, the situation is like, so bad… like, this is just ridiculous that I’m watching this” kind of thing. Um…

INTERVIEWER: Can you give an example of… maybe a joke that you’ve heard or something people frequently make fun of in the ICU?

STELLA: Um… like, I don’t… like [laughs]… if a… like, it’s like—this is like, so bad. I don’t—like, I kinda don’t, like, feel super comfortable like, saying… like, like—so I’ve heard people say like, um… you know, like—oh, like, so-and-so made like, a “celestial transfer”. And so, it’s kind of like—kind of like a jokey way of saying like… if the patient died… and it’s like, instead of transferring them to the floor or like, discharging them from the hospital they were like, transferred to the sky. You know what I mean?

INTERVIEWER: Right, right. 

STELLA: Like, to heaven. And so it’s like, “Oh… like, you know, so-and-so… you know, had a ‘celestial transfer’”, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah”. Um… but yeah… I mean, I don’t know. I feel like it’s… it’s not something that anyone outside of that profession would understand nor think is funny [laughs]. 

Informant Commentary

Stella displayed some apprehension, even guilt, when sharing this particular joke. She feared that those outside her folk group would characterize the humor of medical professionals in the ICU as “heartless”, in her words. For her, the meaning of the humor lies in replacing pain with levity. She went on to describe this folk practice as an absolute necessity to cope with the constant displays of suffering which surround this folk group.


Certain experiences and responsibilities breed jokes which are not considered humorous or even relevant to people without the same experiences and responsibilities. In the case of this specific joke, the experiences and responsibilities shared by those within the folk group are ones closely associated with death, particularly death within a hospital setting. This is why the joke directly references hospital terminology (“transfer”). In addition, references to the word “celestial”, or the movement of a patient from the “terrestrial” to the “celestial” suggests that even within this example of so-called dark humor, there is an implicit hope of peace for their shared patient.  

Tying Sheets to Keep Patients Alive

The informant worked as a nurse in South Carolina for almost a decade. Here, she recounts a way the nurses would try to ward off death from patients on their death beds.

T:  The first one I can think about is in nursing. When, um, I know this sounds terrible, but in nursing when a patient who would not be doing well, who would be passing away, and dying, the nurses would go into their rooms and tie sheets to the corners of their bed. And supposedly that would keep them from dying until, at least– and keep them hanging on supposedly– so they wouldn’t die until later. At least until they were gone. So they wouldn’t die while they were there. 

L: In the room with them?

T: Until the next shift, yeah. 

L: Wait, is this a thing you did in the South or a thing you did in LA? 

T: The South. I didn’t hear about it much here in LA. 

L: It’s like, “Don’t die on my shift, please!”

T: Yeah, they would do it all the time. I would go in and find the corners tied to the bedsheets and I would have to reprimand them. Because families would come in and want to know why there would be, um– and mostly it was the nursing assistants. It wouldn’t be the nurses. And you know, I hate to say it, but, you know, the nursing assistants wouldn’t want to have to deal with the extra work and everything. So I would have to go reprimand the nursing assistants cause the families would come in like, “Why are the corners tied on the end of mama’s bed sheet?” 

L: Wait, so how–? So they would tie a bed sheet to, like, the post? 

T: No, no. You know how you have the top sheet and you have the fitted sheet? The top sheet, the corners on the sides, the corners on the ends. Where the corners are, they would tie a knot in all four corners. Supposedly that would keep the patient hanging on. 

L: Oh, so they’d tie the sheet to itself? 

T: No, no. All four corners, you know how when you take the sheet out of where its tucked in– you know how it hangs down before it’s tucked in? They would take that long sheet out and then they would tie a knot in it, in that corner and the knot would hang down. And a knot would hang down on the other corner, a knot would hang down on another corner. And all four corners would have a knot hanging on it.

 And I would come in, and the family would come in and I’d be like, “Oh my God! They did it again!” It would make me so mad. And I would be like, trying to explain, “you have to understand, our nursing assistants have different beliefs. And they’re just trying to keep mama here as long as possible. And we understand we’re just trying to make her comfortable”. And it would be hospice patients too! People we were trying to make comfortable and let go. You know? And here they come, trying to look like they’re trying to hang onto them. Like, “No! Don’t do that!”

L: Do you remember if this was, like, a white person thing? Or like a black person thing? Or like a both?

T: It mostly was a black person thing, to be honest. So, um, there was a lot of education there. Especially on our hospice unit when I was involved with, um, being in charge of the hospice patients. I really had to do a lot of education and make sure the girls were not doing that. And have to really, really, “y’all can not do that with these patients”. That’s totally the opposite of what our goal is here. You could almost explain it like, “Oh, we’re just trying to make mama hang in there,” but it was really difficult on the hospice unit. 


The reason I asked the informant if this tradition was a white or black thing is because neighborhoods in the Deep South of the United States are still very much segregated based on race. While whites and blacks from the Deep South do share a unifying cultural identity, there are many differences and nuisances that distinctively the two. So I thought it important to know which community this this tradition came from.

Later, the informant agreed with me that this tradition would seem sweet on any other unit that the hospice unit. This tradition runs counter-intuitive to the purpose of a hospice unit.

Opening Windows to Let the Soul Out

The informant worked as a nurse in South Carolina and in Southern California for almost two decades. Here she recounts a cross-cultural tradition that nurses perform after a patient has passed.

T: As far as nursing goes, we would have nurses who would, uh, come in the room. We would have nurses come in, and even nurses here in California I would have some, and um, I don’t know if it was regional or not, cause I would have a lot of nurses that were travelers and a lot of nurses that were from all over the country. You know, cause we have– cause California has so many nurses from so many different places. And you know, how you say, there’s no Californian born in California. But, um, we would have nurses once the patient had died and the family seen the patient, and sometimes even before that, they would open, if they could, they would open the windows in the room.

L: Oh! So their soul could get out?

T: Yeah. So that was another superstition as far as nursing goes. Nurses would, uh, tend to do when they weren’t superstitious in any other way. Nurses tend to be very scientific and clinical–that kinda stuff. But that was a nursing thing that nurses would do, not just the nursing assistants. 

L: Do you remember if that was from any specific nationality or culture? Or did it sort of catch on with everyone? 

T: It crossed a lot of barriers, I think. I know they did it in the South a lot. When I was in the South, I mean, it was very a Southern thing. But when I came here (To Los Angeles) I noticed that a lot of different– cause there are a lot of different cultures here– I noticed a lot of cultures did that. It wasn’t just a Southern thing. Yeah, a lot of different cultures did that. And a lot of different religious cultures seemed to do it. Like, letting the soul be free and not trapped. That kind of thing. 


It’s interesting how the informant says that this tradition is not only seen on opposite sides of the United States, but is also crosses ethnic boundaries as well. This leads me to wonder if the origins of opening the window for someone’s soul to leave may be polygenetic, or if it is a tradition that is passed down from nurse to nurse in the United States and has slowly worked its way across the country.

The Black Stallion and Creature With Three Red Eyes: Don’t Walk Alone at Midnight in Guatemala

I heard this legend while many of my housemates were gathered around a table and drinking. The first time the speaker shared this story, he mentioned that his grandfather never drank after he saw a red-eyed figure in Guatemala. When I asked him to retell his story for collection, he gave much more detail about the two creatures his grandfather feared.


The speaker’s grandfather used to tell this story when he would get drunk: he saw two creatures. One was a being with red eyes, the other was a black horse. In 1960 in San Rafael, Guatemala at exactly 12 am, neighbors in a village of only 15 or 20 houses could hear a black stallion. And if stragglers outside a home were caught alone, they would hear a horse running after them. They wouldn’t see the horse. If they managed to slip inside their house and close the door, they would hear the horse pounding at the threshold until 12:01. Then they would not hear it anymore.

If the horse caught stragglers, they would die of an underlying disease like cardiac arrest or drug overdose, something “easy to explain.” In those days, a lot of children went missing in the wilderness because the area was “unexplored.”

One night, the speaker’s grandfather and his friend left a larger group of friends playing soccer to walk home around midnight. They were both drunk. Suddenly, the speaker’s grandfather felt dread. Every step they took felt “like mud” and the speaker’s grandfather felt like he was being watched. Both friends turned around to see a seven-foot-tall humanoid figure with three red eyes watching “like a little kid goes onto a tree and just sticks his head sideways and stays staring at you.”

The speaker did not know how his grandfather got home that night, but the friend went missing for over a week. “They did find the guy, his friend, my grandpa’s friend. And so he just told me that this dude was torn. Like torn apart. “

When asked what this creature was, the speaker said that “It’s from the time before even that place was colonized by Spain… around the Mayan time… the Mayans just disappeared one day. They were so advanced for their time.” He went on to say that his grandfather believed that the Mayans, who the speaker mentioned were polytheistic built massive pyramids, disappeared because they were killed by these strange creatures. “These things that they [victims] see now are from times that we can’t even comprehend because he’s like, yeah, they’re from the future. And I was like, What the hell do you mean the future?” The speaker trailed off.

“I’m not sure if it’s real or not, I’m going to believe because the way he will talk to me, he would stare me down in the eyes,” the speaker continued. “And my grandma would also support that, because even she would hear the black horse because that another story my grandma told me when my grandpa was asleep, was, he couldn’t sleep at night, most of the time in Guatemala, because he said that that’s the human figure would haunt him because of his friend.”

The speaker noted that black stallions were also a status symbol in Guatemala reserved for members of the military.

When asked why he first told the story, the speaker noted that ” Usually when I’m under the influence, then the story comes out But usually, when you’re impaired or under the influence, you see, I wouldn’t say another dimension, but you see something else? Like you see? We see different.”

The speaker’s grandfather worried that these two creatures would come for him after he moved to the U.S. He later died of a heart attack.


This speaker is a good friend but he embellishes stories a lot. He later told me that he believed that he’d seen the red-eyed creature in the U.S. even though he called both of these creatures “just legends” in the recording. I also happen to know that in telling these stories, he was trying to get me to trust him again after a breakup. After, he often offered to tell similar stories. But I think he was being genuine when he told me what he knew and what he had seen.

This speaker also struggles with drinking alcoholic beverages. Telling this story may be a way for him to express the fear he feels drinking to suppress emotions or escape responsibility.

He later asked me not to tease him about ghosts because to him, these stories are very real. I might not believe these stories in the daylight, but I will never walk alone at midnight in Guatemala.

Howling Dogs

Main Content:

M: Me, I: Informant

I: When I was younger, growing up my mother would say if you heard a dog howling at night, it was the soul of someone who was about to pass away or die or crossing to the next world. So, howling dogs at night used to scare me

M: Oh it used to scare you. Ok

I: Yes because it meant that someone was going to died and you didn’t know who

M: Oh gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. So you believed it to be true?

I: Well yeah I was little, like 7 or 8.

M: Do you believe it to be true today?

I: No, but there things in our family from Peru because we’re from you know that more of the rural areas, that there’s the belief in signs

Context: This was taught to my informant and the rest of her siblings when she was a small child. They all believed in this and even believe their mother had a ‘sense’ about these things. Her mother heard a basketball bouncing in the middle of the night (a symbol connected to the neighbors) and a dog howling and she claimed that someone in that household would die. Soon after the mother of the neighbors died of a surprise brain aneurysm. Seeing the folklore working in real time help to solidify in their belief of the howling dog as a premonition for a soon approaching death.

Analysis: In Peruvian culture especially in the more rural areas, there is a large focus and trust in omens. The belief is that the dogs have a sense about death and illness that humans don’t and thus they know when death is coming sooner than humans do. I think that allowing animals, dogs in this case, to have the power to sense what is coming allows for humans to conceptualize these deaths as a part of nature, a part of the life cycle, and that this was what was in the plans. It makes it easier to attribute to nature’s timing when ‘nature,’ aka dogs, is involved and know what is coming in advance- there is nothing to do but allow for life to take its course. Additionally, ‘seeing’ this work in real life with their neighbors, help to cement this belief in my informant when she was growing up, even if she doesn’t believe it as much now, possibly because she is in a much more science-valued country(the US).