Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying
Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.
Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.
A Quick Overview of Thanatology
Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.
Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.
Religious Beliefs and the Death System
When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:
- Predicting and warning about death
- Caring for dying individuals
- Creating funerary customs and practices
- Consolation for living family members
- Making sense of death
- Determining any morals and ethics of killing
Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.
One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.
Thanatology in Canada
While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.
For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.
Talking About Funeral Plans With Your Loved Ones
It’s only three months into the year, and the world has mourned the deaths of many popular figures. Alan Rickman, Maurice White, René Angélil, and Nancy Reagan are just a few of the beloved celebrities who have passed away in 2016. This should remind everyone that life is short, and you never know when you will have to deal with a death of a loved one. No one wants to think about it, but the best time to discuss funeral plans with your family is when you’re healthy. Here are some tips to open the dialogue with your parents, spouse, or sibling about your own wishes in the event of your death.
Before you can talk about what you want, you need to think about your desires. Do you have funeral arrangements? Do you want to be cremated? What kind of a service would you like? You cannot give your family a plan without having one. Make some notes about what should go into your obituary. Sometimes, children have no idea what you did before you were their parent or what you believe is important to be noted in the announcement.
Starting a Difficult Conversation
Talking about death isn’t easy. Make time in a neutral setting. Start talking about your health. Assure your loved ones that you aren’t dying, but you do have an important topic to talk about. Explain why you want to tell them about your funeral plans. Remind them of a time in your family when plans weren’t in order and how crazy that was. Tell them you just want to make it easier for them in the event of your death, which you hope doesn’t happen for a long time.
You should be prepared for different reactions. People may respond in various ways, which is perfectly understandable. Bringing up this topic can really catch your children or spouse off guard, so they might react with denial, “I just can’t think about this right now.” In that case, tell them you understand, but you would like to be able to share the information with them. You may need to give them a day or two to process the conversation. You may want to change the subject and bring it up in a couple of days.
Another reaction is alarm or disbelief that you’re healthy. You may get asked if you’re not telling them something. Remember that you’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, and they are just hearing about it. Death is not something that people generally talk about. Many people think that if they don’t talk about something, it just won’t happen. Don’t push, just segue into another topic.
If You Just Can’t Bring It Up
For whatever reason, you just can’t talk to those you love. Maybe your kids are too young, or they aren’t in a stage of life where they can deal with your future death. It’s okay. Families have different communication styles. The way to get around this is to write things down. You don’t need to give every detail. Put your instructions with your other important papers. Be assured that this will definitely help your loved ones when the time comes.
One recommendation, even if you have talked to your family: It would still be a good idea to put your wishes in writing. People forget. Loved ones disagree about what is truly your voice. If you only talked to one person, but there are multiple people making decisions, the one you told might be in a place where he or she has to defend your wishes. Having a written plan can help those you leave behind to really know what you want. Once you’ve explained your own plan, you can then ask your loved ones to think about their own wishes, just in case.
Funeral Etiquette and Traditions
Proper Funeral Etiquette.
One of the most solemn occasions most people ever have to attend is a funeral or memorial service. It can be hard to know what to do or say when someone dies. In today’s world, it is even more common to have friends and colleagues who are from different faiths. Here is some general information about funeral etiquette.
Sending Cards, Flowers, and Food
The sympathy card industry is booming, but Emily Post would tell you that it is considered proper etiquette to actually write a note of condolence. It demonstrates you took the time to really think about what you wanted to say. It doesn’t have to be long, but a personal story about the deceased can tell the family how important that person was to you. In any culture, a sympathy note is always appreciated.
Flowers are another traditional offering for funerals, but there are religions which prefer not to have cut flowers. A Jewish family prefers that you give a gift to charity instead of sending flowers. Many people today are having eco-friendly funerals, in which cut flowers are not preferred, but maybe a plant which can continue to thrive would be welcome. The funeral home or memorial service should have information about the family’s preferences.
It’s also considered appropriate to have a family meal following the service. In most churches, synagogues, and mosques, members prepare food for the family to help them in the first days of grief. If you’re unsure about the family’s preferences, you may choose to send them a gift card for food delivery for an evening when they need it most. Meals that can be frozen are helpful, because the family can take them out as needed.
Attending the Funeral or Memorial Service
You might be wondering what is the difference between a funeral or memorial service? At a funeral, the body of the deceased will be present. A memorial service is one where the body is not, such as a cremation. It’s common to wear dark, muted clothes. A funeral is an important occasion, dress as you might for a religious ceremony or business dinner.
Be on time for the service. Funeral venues may have specific parking instructions when you arrive to help with the procession to the graveside. When you enter the location, you should be quiet. Turn off your cell phone or leave it in your car. The seats toward the front of the venue are generally reserved for family and close friends.
This is not the place to talk to the family. Generally, the family will be in a private room before the service, to come in right before it starts. The service will not begin until the family is seated. You will most likely be given a program to follow the flow of the memorial.
Following the service, there is generally a recessional. The pallbearers take the coffin to the hearse, which will take the body to the gravesite. If you are going to the interment, follow the instructions at the venue. As you exit, there may be a family member who is thanking those in attendance. Keep any remarks brief, to keep the flow going.
Be Authentic and Sincere
When someone dies, it is sad. They will be missed. Sometimes, all you have to do is let the surviving family know that you care. Phrases like, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “I’m here to help,” can be comforting. When Jews are in their mourning period known as shiva, visitors actually don’t say anything until the family breaks the silence. Just your presence is enough. You don’t have to fix their sadness, just let them know that you understand. Everyone gets tongue-tied and feels inadequate during a time of grief. Be respectful and solemn, even when you are unsure of what to do.