Ethnographic reports indicate that association of sleep and dreams with death is widespread in human culture, as is the theme of death in dreams. For instance, the Australian Aborigines beliefs about death, the origin of death, and a person’s destiny stem from dreams, whereas for the Senoi death dreams can release a positive force within the dreamer. In many different religious traditions, but particularly in the West, dreamers travel out of the body and journey to the underworld, where they receive knowledge or magical power.
Dreams of death often occur as a result of great stress caused by relationships, school, vocational changes, or by the approach of death itself. Such dreams may also be caused by a terminal illness or by the death of a loved one, before or after which a member of the family often receives a visitation from the departed. Among the most important traditions in which death dreams are studied is the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, according to whom death dreams are to be linked to the universal primordial imagery of personal transformation—when one “dies” to the old self to be reborn as a new self. Jungian psychotherapist Marie-Louise von Franz asserts that dreams of dying people can be interpreted as preparation of the consciousness for a deep transformation and for the continuation of life after death.
Studies interpreting and classifying death dreams include those of Edgar Herzog, Hendrika Vande Kemp, and Ann Faraday. In Psycheand Death, Herzog attempts to trace the associations between dreams and ancient myths and analyzes five types or sequences of death dreams: repression of death, which refers to the dreamer’s refusal to face the death situation; killing, a ritual in which the killer comes to terms with death; archaic forms of the death-demon, with mythological components; the land of the dead, in which archaic myths are associated with love, procreation, birth, and rebirth; and dreams of death as an expression of the process of development, in which there is an encounter with death that reflects or aids the development or maturation of the dreamer’s personality.
In her classification of dreams, Hendrika Van de Kemp delineates the following types of dreams: telepathic, in which the dying person appears in the dreams of friends or relatives; premonitory, in which the dying person appears in the dream with those who are already dead to announce his or her impending death; hypermnesic, in which the dead person conveys information that has been lost to the dreamer’s waking memory; predictive, in which the dreamer predicts the time of his or her own death; archetypal, in which death appears in a symbolic form; and revelatory, in which the dead person reappears to convey a religious or philosophical truth that the person had promised to announce to the living.
In The Dream Game, Ann Faraday states that death dreams can be considered metaphors, expressing through the death of others that one’s feelings for someone, something, or an aspect of oneself is dead; as reminders, when those already dead appear in dreams, of something in need of resolution; or as symbols, when one dreams of death, indicating the need for an old self-image to be transcended.