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.