Thanatology is the academic, and often scientific, study of death among human beings. It investigates the circumstances surrounding a person's death, the grief experienced by the deceased's loved ones, and larger social attitudes towards death such as ritual and memorialization. It is primarily an interdisciplinary study, frequently undertaken by professionals in nursing, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, and social work.
Knowledge and understanding of the process of death and dying, and what happens after that can help many of us overcome fear and pain when making preparations for our own death, or for that of someone we love. Thanatology is a field that has brought the study of death and how to prepare for it out of the realm of religion, divided by the different doctrines and beliefs, and not available to those without faith, into the public arena. Understanding more about death can help tremendously with the grieving or separation process. It also helps us to prepare for our own inevitable death, allowing people to complete their lives on earth and to end them without regret.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who pioneered this area, remarked that any strong faith is helpful in this regard, whereas a "wishy-washy" faith of any kind is equally unhelpful. Belief in the afterlife means that life on earth is preparation for eternal life in the spiritual world, and this is a source of great hope, expectation, and joy. Thanatology recognizes that positive expectations of one's continued existence can provide great support for those facing the loss of a loved one as well as encouragement for those facing their own death.
The word Thanatology is derived from the Greek language. In Greek mythology, Thanatos (θάνατος: "death") is the personification of death. The English suffix -ology derives from the Greek suffix -logia (-λογια: "speaking"). Thus, thanatology is the study of death in all its aspects and impact on human beings.
In most cases, thanatology is studied as a means towards the end of providing palliative care for dying individuals and their families. According to the World Health Organization:
palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, involving the treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.
Thanatology recognizes that, ultimately, death is inevitable. It works to develop guidelines to ease the process of dying.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross revolutionized how physicians treat dying patients. Her writings advocated for, and ultimately produced, more humane and compassionate treatment of the dying. Her classic first book, On Death and Dying, is considered the master text on the subject, and is required reading in most major medical and nursing schools, and graduate schools of psychiatry and theology.
Thanatology does not directly explore the meaning of life and of death. Medically, this question is irrelevant to those studying it. However, the question is very relevant to the psychological health of those involved in the dying process: individuals, families, communities, and cultures. Thanatology explores how the question affects those involved, not the question itself.
As an interdisciplinary study, thanatology relies on collaboration with many different fields of study. Death is a universal human concern; it has been examined and re-examined in a wide variety of disciplines, dating back to pre-history. Some of these fields of study are academic in nature; others have evolved throughout history as cultural traditions. Because death is such a broad and complex subject, thanatology relies on a holistic approach.
The humanities are, perhaps, the very oldest disciplines to explore death. Historically, the average human being had a significantly lower standard of living and life span in the past than he or she would today. War, famine, and disease always kept death close at hand. Artists, authors, and poets often employed the universality of death as a motif in their works, and this tendency continues today.
The social sciences are often involved in the study of death both on the individual and on the cultural level. The individual level is primarily covered by psychology, the study of individual minds. Avoiding (or, in some cases, seeking) death is an important human motive; the fear of death affects many individuals' actions.
Several social sciences focus on the broad picture, and they too frequently encounter the issue of death. Sociology studies social rules and attitudes towards death. Sub-disciplines within sociology, such as the sociology of disaster, focus more narrowly on the issue of how societies handle death. Likewise, cultural anthropology and archaeology concern themselves with how current and past cultures have dealt with death, respectively. Society and culture are similar concepts, but their scopes are different. A society is an interdependent community, while culture is an attribute of a community: the complex web of shifting patterns that link individuals together. In any case, both cultures and societies must deal with death; the various cultural studies (many of which overlap with each other) examine this response using a variety of approaches.
There is also a branch of thanatology called music-thanatology which focuses on the use of "music vigils" to help the individual and their family. A vigil consists of one or a team of music-thanatologists who visit the dying person. They play the harp and sing a certain repertoire of music that is very helpful to the patient and their family. Often after a vigil, the dying person is more relaxed, less agitated, and is in less pain. Many hospitals and hospices have professional music-thanatologists on their staff.
Both religion and mythology concern themselves with what happens after death. They often involve belief in reincarnation or some form of an afterlife. The universal life-death-rebirth deity glorifies those who are able to overcome death. Although thanatology does not directly investigate the question itself, it is concerned with how people choose to answer the question for themselves.
For example, individuals who believe that they will go to heaven when they die will likely be less afraid of death. Alternately, terminally ill individuals who believe that suicide is a sin may be wracked with guilt. On one hand, they may wish to end the suffering, but on the other hand, they may believe that they will be sent to hell for eternity unless they die naturally, however long and painful that may be. The loved ones of individuals like these are likewise either consoled or distressed, depending on what they believe will ultimately happen to the dying individual. Faith can inspire comfort, anxiety, and sometimes both. This is an important point to those studying thanatology and the sociology of religion.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, writing on how people view the inevitable death of loved ones, wrote of the afterlife:
When we have done all the work we were sent to Earth to do, we are allowed to shed out body, which imprisons our soul like a cocoon encloses the future butterfly. And when the time is right, we can let go of it and we will be free of pain, free of fears and worries—free as a very beautiful butterfly, returning home to God...which is a place where we are never alone, where we continue to grow and to sing and to dance, where we are with those we loved, and where we are surrounded with more love than we can ever imagine.
Medical science and applied medicine are also very important fields of study in thanatology. The biological study of death helps explain what happens, physically, to individuals in the moment of dying and after-death bodily changes. Pharmacology investigates how prescription drugs can ease death, and in some cases prevent early deaths. Psychiatry, the medical application of psychological principles and therapeutic drugs, is also involved; many licensed psychiatrists are required to take courses on thanatology during training. Medical ethics are also an important area of study, especially on the issue of euthanasia ("right to die").
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, revolutionized the way health care professionals care for terminally ill patients. Her now-classic first book, On Death and Dying, is today considered the master text on the subject, and is required reading in most major medical and nursing schools and graduate schools of psychiatry and theology.
Currently Hood College is the only school that offers a full Masters degree in Thanatology.
The Association for Death Education and Counseling is an international organization dedicated to promoting excellence in death education, care of the dying, grief counseling and research in thanatology. The association provides information, support, and resources to its multicultural, multidisciplinary membership and, through it, to the public. It also offers a program where individuals can become certified in thanatology.
The Center for Thanatology Research and Education is a resource for books, media, research studies, and periodicals on the study of thanatology. This online center includes resources for health professionals, teachers, parents, and children on dealing with issues of death and dying.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation (EKR Foundation) was formed by her son Kenneth Ross. The mission of the EKR Foundation is to continue and grow Elisabeth's pioneering work with the dying and their loved ones. It is a resource for education and advocacy.
Many music-thanatologists are certified by the Music Thanatology Association International organization. Music-thanatologists use the intitals "CM-Th" to designate certification by the only professional organization of music-thanatologists.
All links retrieved November 23, 2015.
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