Sicily used to have got some very old laws. One in particular was stating that in case of serious illness or after three days of intense sickness, the doctor was forced to call for the “Viatico”, the Catholic Sacrament of the Confession, which was intended as a medicine for the patient’s soul before the afterlife.
By law, the doctor was prohibited to perform a second examination on the patient with no confession or the punishment would have been the excommunication. The only exception to the rule was in case the patient had received the confession before getting sick.
The law was so strict that doctors were even forced to swear to observe the law during their graduation.
Sometimes it was not the doctor to call for the “Viatico” but relatives and associates. They used to follow “divine omens” to establish it was the time for the sick relative to depart for the afterlife. These “divine omens” were generally connected to the barking of the dogs, black cats nearby, owls perching on the roof, chickens squawking like roosters, dreams dealing with the sick relative, swiping the house at night, adding a new door to a room of the house and many other ones we yet keep on getting from elder’s tales nowadays.
Around 1600 it was starting to become popular to think that the landlord whose chickens were squawking aloud in the yard would have died whether the chickens were not slaughtered immediately. And when it comes to adding a new door to a room of the house the following story have been preserved:
“Today, on September the 23rd 1876, I was sent to pay Mrs D. a visit on San Francesco di Paola’s square as she went into a deep depression (deep sadness) after moving to a new house three days ago and that is because her landlord added a new door in a room just close to the main gate. I sadly have to say the poor lady passed away shortly after and her relatives cannot forgive the landlord for that wicked decision.”
To avoid the sick person realized that his demise was just around the corner, the need of the “Viatico” was usually explained as an act of grace, to receive the Holy Sacraments and thus letting the Lord to bless the house and its inhabitants.
Therefore the Viatico bell rings and everyone kneel and kiss the floor three times, while the most agile ones rush to the church to borrow some holy relics. When the Viatico is performed children are removed from the room for they are considered a bad omen.