I've been debating this one for a few days. Jay Lake shared his experience that dying of cancer seems to be his new career. He discusses how people, because they know he is dying, feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, fears, and dread about death.
This is one of our societal quirks. Once you know someone is either experiencing or will experience something that you have gone through, a bond is created. You can share more intimately than you normally would. People who have known death in an up close and personal way don't share a lot of that event unless they know you have also been there (trust me on this, for those of you who haven't experienced a close death or serious illness, when the others of us mention the guilt, impotence, and anger we have gone through you all look at us like we had lobsters coming out of our ears, let alone the complications of chemo or the visceral dread and then odd calm of waiting for biopsy test). At work, there are a few of us who have been close to people who have had cancer, or who have had cancer themselves. We talk differently to each other when we're alone. It's a more direct and matter of fact way.
As an example, another coworker was experiencing their first taste of mortality. The rest of us wanted to help, but they had cocooned their emotions. Badly I might add. We wanted to help them, give them advice, guide them to a more gentle experience than most of us had, but they wouldn't let us in. And so our group's conversation took a different turn. We started asking questions like, "Do you think they've reached this stage, yet?" and, "Do you think they've made their peace with their family member?"
It's a different way of communicating. You may know someone who has had cancer, but unless you experience it at a close range, you miss a lot. One of my coworkers has gone through breast cancer, after I shared my cancer experiences with her, and asked her a lot of focused questions, our working relationship changed. There are fewer walls between us, and we have often shared things that most coworkers would never share with each other. And it is a comfort than I know people with whom I can have those conversations. In the sharing, it lightens all our loads. A monster brought into the light is always less scary than the monster in the dark.
So here is the story bone. What if a society "uses" people who know they are dying as a way of easing their own collective psychology? In the way of a sin-eater, they would gather our fears of death, and become our confessor of life. So that with their passing, they would take those fears, worries, regrets, all the so called baggage of life with them and reduce the load on the rest of society.
What does this mean to such a culture? What does a terminal diagnosis then become? An honor to serve, or even more of a nightmare than some people already believe? And what does this do to the person who has that diagnosis? What price do they pay for hefting our load? What if this is an actual career for someone, the person chosen to whom you can go to for this type of thing (without the terminal illness)? If those people are selected by lottery or those who travel the path of the shaman (note, most shaman's never chose that profession, the profession choses them)? What if this is the function we ask of those condemned to death as part of their penalty? What if they were thought of as those who could take messages to the dead and it was their job to memorize all the personal messages from the living to those who have passed on? And in this last case, what if they are sworn to secrecy about the messages, only to have someone confess some horrible secret (the classic "criminal confesses to their priest" conundrum)? Are these people required to travel so that others have access to them?
Frankly, I think the resulting social changes would be very interesting, as would the psychology of the person dying.
Edited 10-01-2013 Christopher Gronlund also has a take on Jay's post that might be helpful, The Wisdom of the Dead. "It’s as if people believe once one knows they are dying, suddenly a flood of wisdom falls into their heads… just waiting to be dispensed." Yea and verily. (Grokked from Jay Lake)
Along these lines, there's a poem I just half remembered, something about that maybe there are some secrets the dead are telling us.