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Thanatology is the scientific study of death. It investigates the circumstances surrounding death, the grief experienced by the deceased's loved ones, and larger social attitudes towards death. It is primarily an interdisciplinary study, frequently undertaken by professionals in nursing, psychiatry, and veterinary science.

The word 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").


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." [1] Thanatology recognizes that, ultimately, death is inevitable. It works to develop guidelines to ease the process of dying.

Thanatology does not directly explore the meaning of life and of death. Medically, this question is irrelevant to those studying it. Some medical texts refer to inquiries of the meaning of life and death as absurd and futile. 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.

Many individuals who study thanatology do so because they believe that life is valuable. Death is the end of life, making the study of it worthwhile by association. Their primary goal is to ease and improve the dying process, both for the dying and for that person's loved ones. This goal is consistent with the Hippocratic Oath.

Fields of study

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 holist approach.

Inspired by the 14th century's Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death, a common motif in the late-medieval

The humanities are, perhaps, the very oldest disciplines to explore death. Historically, the average human had a lower standard of living than he or she would today. Wars, famine, and disease kept death close at hand. Artists, authors, and poets often employed the universality of death as a motif in their works; this trend continues today.

The social sciences are often involved on both 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 and effects many individuals' actions.

Several social sciences focus on the broad picture, and they too frequently encounter the issue of death. Sociology is the study of social rules. No society is without its 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 archeology concern themselves with how current and past cultures deal 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.

Both religion and mythology concern themselves largely with what happens after death. They usually involve 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, an individual who believes that she will go to heaven when she dies will likely be less afraid of death. Alternately, a terminally ill individual who believes that suicide is a sin may be wracked with guilt. On one hand, he may wish to end the suffering, but on the other hand, he may believe that he will be sent to hell for eternity unless he dies 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 either comfort and anxiety, and sometimes both. This is an important point to those studying thanatology and the sociology of religion.

Medical science and applied medicine are also very important fields of study used in thanatology. The biological study of death helps explain what happens, physically, to individuals when they die. Pharmacology investigates how prescription drugs can ease death, and in some cases prevent early deaths. Psychiatry, the medical application of psychological principles and theraputic 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").