A deathbed is literally a bed on which someone dies, although this term is also used more generally to refer to the hours prior to death. When someone is said to be on his or her deathbed, it usually implies that he or she is not expected to get up again, and that people who wish to visit should do so quickly. Historically, the deathbed has been a site of emotional conversations, as people try to connect with the soon to be deceased before they lose their chance to do so.
Obviously, not everyone dies on a bed, although many people do. People who suffer from terminal illnesses often die in bed, either at home or in the hospital, as do some elderly people who pass away in their sleep, or victims of traumatic accidents who make it to a hospital bed before expiring. As a general rule, in order to be considered a deathbed, a bed must house someone for at least a few hours before death, and he or she should have been conscious enough to converse with friends and family members for at least some of this time.
Some people use their deathbeds as an opportunity to dispense advice and ideas to friends and family members, relying on the solemnity of the occasion to enforce the message. Others may choose to make a confession on the deathbed; deathbed confessions can bring up all sorts of interesting topics which people might have thought long-gone, as the dying are often troubled by events in their past and a desire to make amends for acts of wrongdoing.
Deathbeds have also witnessed many religious conversions. The “deathbed conversion,” as it is known, is usually attributed to a desire to be prepared for the world beyond. Convicted atheists may seek the comfort of religion at the end of their lives, for example, or people may feel pressured to convert from their own faith by a priest or official representing another faith. Such deathbed conversions may also satisfy the desires of survivors of the deceased; for example, a wife who wishes to be buried with her husband in a Christian cemetery may entreat him to convert before death.
The atmosphere around a deathbed can vary widely. Some people choose to celebrate the life of the dying around the deathbed, telling stories, singing songs, and eating food in an environment which can seem almost cheerful. In other cases, the area may be more tense or solemn as people struggle to come to grips with the fact of death. Family members may also clash over the death bed as they argue about the best care for the dying, various past events, or even the will.