This is the final paper I wrote for this past semester’s Sociology of Death and Dying class. It was an extremely interesting, though honestly harrowing, class which I learned quite about myself and how people and different cultures view and death with the concept and actualities of death. The paper is really just a broad exposition of this learning in general. I hope you enjoy it.
Take care of each other.
In taking the class, “Sociology of Death and Dying”, I’ve come to learn a great deal about my own personal beliefs regarding death, both as a concept and indeed, as a final fact of life itself. It isn’t as though I’ve never thought about such things prior to the class, but not with the same level of depth and analysis. I also certainly hadn’t put much thought into the social impact that death has overall. Again, the social way to which death affects people wasn’t wholly foreign to me, but I simply hadn’t considered the levels of concern that proliferate and to what extent. There’s more mature understanding of respecting how those who think differently about death than I do thanks to a more active engagement with it.
Death is a largely stigmatized topic and within the Western cultures especially, there are certain taboos surrounding its discussion. Often times it is mediated by phrases which seek to limit the direct nature of its legitimacy, as though changing the speech surrounding its actuality will somehow remove its eventuality. But, as a species which can consciously conceive of its own mortality, we know that regardless of how we dress up the language, one thing is an absolute certainty – we all end up dead.
Historical and Cultural Perspectives Toward Death
The topic of death has variegated definitions across history and cultures. Historically, death itself is the most constant thing of which living beings can depend. While death itself has changed in the sense of types of ways in which one can die or be killed, death itself is always, and will continue to be the final point in a living being’s terrestrial instantiation. Likewise, for every sociocultural viewpoint and lifestyle, there are as many (quite possibly more) different perspectives on death. There are differing ways in which death is mourned; the way it’s talked about; and how it’s handled on a pragmatic level. To say that death is historically and culturally complicated would seem a misnomer; after all, how can something as seemingly simple as dying be complex?
Various cultures throughout history have conceived of death in different ways. The discussions which people most used to teach about their conceptions of death were myths. “The precursors of human attitudes, values, and practices are found in myths—that is, stories that explain ideas or beliefs common to the worldview of a people” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 92). Telling stories which are bound to ideas of divine deities is a much more palatable way to convey the harsh realities of death. It also offers ways in which a people can more easily define their own moral values in light of death and dying. To create myths surrounding death is to attempt to assert a metaphysical understanding in order to alleviate the anxieties which arise in light of its realities.
A fairly common trope amongst most myths – and subsequently, religions – is that of an immortal hereafter where an aspect of a person’s individuality is continued beyond its mortal physicality. This is largely a way for people to have a feeling of security in light of their limited time on the terrestrial plane of existence. “Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming to not want what you really want most” (Becker, 12). By instating a belief of a further existence beyond this one, even though it may be in a different form than the one currently held, a people are able to justify the need for morally correct actions in this one. This is done by barring access to the promised wonders of immortal existence by way of contingent prerequisites; namely, by acting within the moral boundaries as set by the belief system to which a person subscribes.
Decisions About End-of-Life
Some of the most difficult aspects of death surround the conversations which must be had pertaining to the end of one’s life. Most people are uncomfortable discussing the pragmatic actions which must be taken in the event that certain decisions must be made, whether expected or not, about the sorts of care and actions to be taken should they be in such positions. The more common discussions pertain to the implementation of proxy control and the types of care which are contingent upon what the patient wants, regardless of their condition – as in DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, or advance directives.
Without such orders or directives, which explicitly express the desires the patient as laid out prior to their debilitating medical conditions, the patients are likely to suffer various forms of extreme pain when the doctors attempt to revive them. “Almost all medical professionals have seen too much of what call ‘futile care’ being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. … What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist” (Dickinson & Leming, 92). But, if a patient has a medical proxy assigned, or they have a DNR and/or advance directives laid out, doctors are far more likely to follow those directives in order to respect their wishes. This will help ensure that these aggressive procedures, which causes further physical damage, can be avoided when they’re not absolutely necessary. It also allows for the patient to retain their autonomous rights over their body and existence.
It’s these sorts of discussions which are of higher importance than most people seem to realize, until its past time for them. If someone is suddenly put into a state whereby they can no longer make such decisions for themselves, they are simply foisted upon the standard ethics of care which the medical field adheres to; namely, do no harm while fending off death. This sounds noble on the face of it but considering the level to which patients’ bodies can be cut up, poked, stuck with tubes, and submitted to intolerable levels of indignity, the fact is: considerable harm is done, nonetheless.
Funerary Rites & Body Configuration
As humanity evolved, both in its biological nature and its geographical locales, the need for different ways of dealing with the realities of death became more necessary. For instance, when people were living a more transient lifestyle in small tribes of minimal population count, the need for more complex burial practices weren’t as prevalent. This is not to say that bodies were simply discarded as trash when they moved on, but rather that there was a different sort of configuration toward the them. Sky burials, shallow natural burials, and low-heat funeral pyres were fairly standard ways to dispose of the dead, but once people stopped moving around as frequently, setting down permanent residence, the need for more advanced body dispostions arose. This was largely due to having to ensure infectious diseases didn’t spread. This ushered in the use of certain chemicals which would preserve the bodies and keep them from rotting as quickly, deeper burials, and high-heat cremation became the more common practices.
The rituals surrounding funerals are not only a symbolic remembrance of the person who has died, but also a catharsis for those who knew and cared for them. “These rituals allowed bereaved individuals to celebrate the life of the person who died, mourn his or her death, as well as receive the support of others” (Buckely & Feldt, 507). It is by these funerary rites and rituals that people are properly able to exorcise cathexis in a healthy way, surrounded by others with the same intention. It’s a communal way of coping with the emotional trauma which can take hold of people when those they care about have died.
A crucial way in which the death of someone and their subsequent funeral helps is that it truly concretizes the material reality of the person’s death for the mourner(s). The realization of its concomitant effects may not truly hit until later, but the funeral is a sort of grounding point to which they can refer back to as a way of associating the reality of their death to its conceptual understanding. It’s also a useful way for interactions with people who knew the deceased person. Often times the person who has died is shown to have different characteristics as told through the stories of those who knew them which can also bring a deeper understanding to the mourner(s).
While death and dying are most certainly of a personal nature, it also affects society on the micro and macro level. A person’s death can be a quiet affair, or it can be something which causes emotional outbursts locally, and there are some deaths which can shake the very foundation of the world itself. Consider the death of a loved one. This at first may seem as though the only effects are those which are directly related to the family. But there’s an expanding circle which begins touching outside social relations. In the case of well-known people, these deaths influence and cause changes on an even larger scale.
It’s not just the deaths of people which has social implications, but also the business and arrangements toward education of death itself which society participates in. It should come as no surprise that the one trait that all of humanity absolutely shares, regardless of race, class, or gender, is something which the social world is directly and heavily involved with. Recently, with COVID-19 affecting the entire planet’s population in some way, and the advanced, immediate interconnectivity, the social world has been put more directly in touch with death in a way that hadn’t seemed possible. This is not to discount prior large-scale population deaths (9-11, the Holocaust, 1918 Influenza Pandemic, etc.) but until now, a global awareness of these levels of death, which is practically instantaneous, has never occurred.
Socialization of Death
The earlier a person can be educated about death and all of the intricacies which surround it, the more prepared they will be to handle all of its difficulties when finally confronted with its reality. As a person develops their mature concept of death, they come to realize certain actualities about it that had hitherto been unknown, or at least not fully understood. Without an open disclosure of those realities, a person is more likely to find themselves unable to properly cope with death once they encounter it. This is not to say that horrific imagery should be forced upon young children, but rather that if they do have questions – especially in the case that they’re directly dealing with a death – then they should be answered lucidly and with respect to their concerns. “[R]esearch generally has indicated that most children have acquired a mature concept of death around the age of nine, recent studies show that children begin to conceptualize death as a biological event at the same time they construct a “biological model” of how the human body functions” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 55). This is to say precisely that there is essentially no specific age which is deemed as the “correct age” to being discussing death with children as they are capable of conceptualizing certain aspects of it at varying ages and maturity levels.
One of the most prevalent ways in which death is socialized is through people’s religious beliefs and practices. Religion is a more refined, defined, and explicitly conceived structuring of the concept of death than the aforementioned myth-making traditions, but they share the commonality of being able to help relieve the anxieties and tensions which death can bring to those confronting mortality. “Not only can religion help the bereaved cope, and by extension should help those experiencing anticipatory grief, but research also points to the effectiveness of religiosity in coping with illness in particular” (Buckley & Feldt, 445). Through not only the communal aspect of religion, but also the belief in a divine hereafter, those who are anxious about death, nervous about their illnesses, or concerned about those who have died, are more able to feel a sense of ease. There is a promise of something better, or at the very least, something where peace is experienced beyond this terrestrial strife.
Society’s Bureaucratization of Mortality
In a bureaucratic society – especially of the sort the West is – death is swallowed into its machinations, just like anything else. In order to be properly dead, one must be confirmed as such by verification through a death certificate. There have been cases where people have been assumed alive for years, debts continuing to rack up, when they had in fact been dead, but due to some hiccup in the system, their death had never been confirmed. This isn’t the only reason for a bureaucratization of death and the varied aspects of it, related directly and indirectly.
The state plays a large part in dictating whether or not certain criminals are deserving of death or not, what sort of care they are given when terminally ill, and the methods by which they’re put to death. The only institution to which the killing of a human being is specifically allowed by law is that of the state itself. As such, there is a great deal of red tape and confounding channels which must be navigated in order for a person to appeal against the death of another, or indeed themselves, should a criminal prosecution deem them worthy of such action.
In our prison system, there are various programs called ‘compassionate release’ or sometimes ‘medical parole’, whereby elderly or seriously ill prisoners may be released to the community before the end of their sentence. … 101 federal inmates were approved for compassionate release in 2014 out of a total federal prison population of 214,000 people.(Dickinson & Leming, 35)
A major problem is that a great number of cases where a person is put to death, later evidence will come forward which exonerates them of the crimes convicted. So, who pays the penalty for this sort of legal murder of an innocent person?
Perspectives on Suicide
The toughest conversations are the ones which tend to be the most important, and paradoxically, they’re the ones which people are the most averse to have. One of those which has 2 key parts that people feel extremely uncomfortable speaking openly and frankly about is that of suicide. The first aspect is that of intentional suicide. What is meant by this is when a person takes their own life far in advance of what their nature timeline would be. This is a person who has no terminal illness but may instead be affected by certain mental illnesses or can’t find any purpose, meaning, or hope in their lives. This causes them to suffer in tremendously detrimental ways which leads them to finally take that final step of their own accord.
The second aspect of suicide is that which is called “assisted suicide” or “death with dignity”. “Laws state persons must make an ‘informed decision’ rather than have ‘informed consent’ … Legislation precisely states physicians cannot assist death, but may assist dying; thus, state agencies deliberately renamed practices as death with dignity” (Buckley & Feldt, 255). These are people who are either suffering from a terminal illness, or have a prognosis which is incurable and degenerative (Alzheimer’s, for instance), which leads them to make the choice to seek out professionals who are licensed and able to help them finalize their mortal existence. Rather than find themselves existing in a manner which they find repulsive to their personal values, they make the choice to end their lives. This gives them their autonomous freedom over their lives, or rather—death.
Suicide is stigmatized to such an extent that even discussing it is taboo. There are tensions which arise when the subject is even broached. It is seen as some sort of moral failing or weakness that needs to be overcome. People who commit suicide are quite often marginalized as persona non grata. Frequently, this sort of treatment is justified by way of religious justification, stating that such an action is expressly against the faith. Interestingly though, most religions do not in fact have specific strictures against the taking of one’s own life, but rather taking life generally. This of course can be interpreted to mean one’s own as well as any other.
The fact is though, suicide has been seen not only favorably, but honorably, in certain contexts. The stoic philosophers (most specifically Seneca) saw suicide as a favorable way to take ownership of one’s own life when it became too intolerable. Japanese samurai culture say suicide (seppuku) as a proper way for one who had dishonored his family to commit the ultimate sacrifice so that they regained, and indeed retained it. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was the one who pointed out in his short piece “On Suicide”, Christianity’s gripe with suicide stating:
In its innermost core, Christianity bears the truth that suffering (the Cross) is the real purpose of life; and therefore as suicide opposes such purpose, Christianity rejects it, whereas antiquity, from a lower point of view, approved and even honoured it. That reason against suicide is, however, ascetic and therefore applies only to an ethical standpoint much higher than that which European moral philosophers have ever occupied. But if we descend from that very high point, there is no longer any valid moral reason for condemning suicide.(295)
A persistent and resounding theme that I’ve come to notice throughout this paper, this class, and a lot of the reading I’ve been doing lately, is that of humanity’s penchant for denying the cold, hard, realities of death. It’s understandable that a species which has a self-awareness of its own mortality should try to repress such truths. Otherwise, we’d be living in a constant grip of abject horror and anxiety. But this isn’t to say that the open discussion about the various aspects of death and all of its outgrowths should be stigmatized in the way that it is. It’s only by confronting those things that we most fear that we can in fact come to a sense of comfort and ease with it. It’s no wonder that people will turn to all the different ways to which they might gain access to such feelings—meditation, astrology, religion, and even science.
We’re all struggling to find meaning to the short amount of time we have, but this shouldn’t necessitate the need to deny that there is an inevitable end. The more openly we can all discuss the different aspects of death – as a species – the more capably will we be able to handle it when the unexpected happens. And maybe, in our further understanding and acceptance, we might be able to come to be more empathetic toward one another, regardless of race, class, gender, or any of the other categories we so often define for ourselves.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Buckley, William J., and Karen S. Feldt, editors. Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Death and Dying. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.
DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, and Albert Lee Strickland. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2015.
Dickinson, George E., and Michael R. Leming, editors. Annual Editions: Dying, Death, and Bereavement, 15th ed., McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Suffering of the World, Ed. Eugene Thacker. Repeater Books, 2020.