Thanatology: Death Education

by M-Gillies
skull in library with books

The study of death and dying has given us many benefits which include grief counseling, hospices and palliative care.

Derived from the Greek mythology of Thanatos, the daemon personification of death, thanatology is the academic study of dying, death and grief, and encompasses thoughts, feelings, attitudes, events and the psychological mechanisms of dealing with them.

While the topic is wide-ranging, thanatology further includes sociology, biology, history, theology, psychology, economics, art and literature, as well as medical changes which occur in the body during the process of dying and after death. These changes can include deathbed visions, the experience of grief in both closer and larger circles surrounding the deceased, and ritual practices relating to death.

It was in 1903, when Russian scientist, Elie Metchnikoff, famous for his work in microbiology and the discovery of phagocytosis, called for the establishment of a scientific discipline devoted to the study of death. Arguing that those who were dying had little or no resource on the experience of dying, Metchnikoff hoped that an academic study would help those facing death to not fear it.

It was with this advocation that Metchnikoff suggested that without systematic attention to death, life sciences would not be complete. While an early advocate for a topic many tend to avoid, only a few scholars and educators followed in his lead. However, while medical students had their obligatory encounters with cadavers, there was almost no instruction on how to care for the dying, nor was there death research included in the curriculum.

This started to change following World War II. With haunted memories and many causalities, the world was forced to stare at death and this redirected the attention of existential philosophers to life-and-death issues.

Recognized as a pioneering figure in the modern death movement, American psychologist Herman Feifel challenged Western societies’ taboos toward the scientific study of death and dying. With the publication of the book The Meaning of Death, Feifel dispelled myths held by scientists and practitioners about death and the denial of its importance for human behavior, thus laying out the foundation for the field to be known as thanatology.

With this effort of paving the way for improved communication of death and dying, international suicide-prevention efforts responded to the anguish of people contemplating self-destruction, and further encouraged the hospice movement to introduce improved means of caring for the dying, as well as allowing grief-support groups to provide comforts to many who had been alone in their distress.

It is through thanatology, that thanatologist look to improve death education and grief counseling by using valid, death-related data, methodology and theory in their pursuit to understand death feelings and experiences. Since overcoming early resistance toward death education, thanatological studies are facing newer challenges in the 21st century regarding the emergence of physician-assisted deaths, children’s rights and lifestyle behaviors ranging from excessive drinking, tobacco and drug usage and unsafe operation of motor vehicles.

Death education and grief counseling are primary topics of thanatology and are based upon a thorough knowledge of valid, death-related data, methodology and theory, requiring practitioners of thanatology to have up-to-date knowledge of current thanatological literature.

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