SOCIOLOGY OF DEATH AND DYING

It has been claimed that one can never look directly at the sun nor at one's own death. And yet, throughout the history of mankind, both have been the enduring themes of myth and religion, science and magic, curiosity and fear. From our late twentieth century vantage point we find that as the sun is understood as being the source of life in the natural order, so death is becoming recognized as the central dynamism underlying the life, vitality, and structure of the social order. Death is the muse of our religions, philosophies, political ideologies, arts and medical technologies. It sells newspapers and insurance policies, invigorates the plots of our television programs, and--judging from our dependency on fossil fuels (84.5% of all U.S. energy consumption in 1995)--even powers our industries. It is the barometer by which we measure the adequacy of social life, such as when we compare cross-cultural death and life expectancy rates to gauge social progress, compare national homicide rates to infer the stability of social structures, or compare death rates of different social groups to ascertain social inequalities. In fact, perhaps the very first evidence of sapien's humanity is based on funerary evidence: the discovery of the remains of a middle-aged Neanderthal, whose deformity and yet relative longevity indicate that he had probably been supported by others, and who was buried in a fetal position and covered with flowers.

As Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf observed in Celebrations of Death, "life becomes transparent against the background of death" (1979:2). In a way analogous to the experimental method of subatomic physicists bombarding and shattering the nuclei of atoms in order to reveal their constituent parts and processes, death similarly reveals the most central social processes and cultural values. Death is a catalyst that, when put into contact with any cultural order, precipitates out the central beliefs and concerns of a people.

Abram Rosenblatt et al. (1989) found, for example, that when reminded of their mortality, people react more harshly toward moral transgressors and become more favorably disposed toward those who uphold their values. In one experiment, twenty-two municipal judges were given a battery of psychological tests. In the experimental group, eleven judges were told to write about their own death, including what happens physically and what emotions are evoked when thinking about it. When asked to set bond for a prostitute on the basis of a case brief, those who had thought about their death set an average bond of $455, while the average in the control group was $50. The authors concluded (Greenberg et al. 1990) that when awareness of death is increased, in-group solidarity is intensified, out-groups become more despised, and prejudice and religious extremism escalate.

On a more psychological level, death exposures can similarly crystallize and invigorate individuals' own life pathways. In his study of patients having had brushes with death, cardiologist Michael Sabom (Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation, 1976) found that for the 43 percent who had near-death experiences, the experience did more to change the depth and direction of their approach to life than had any other life event.

So did you check out your death date (for more refined test go to MSNBC's "How long will you live--really?"or to Northwestern Mutual's Longevity Game)? What thoughts came to mind when you saw it?

Below is an outline of this website. For a glossary of terms click here.  One visitor questioned the organization, wondering why "Personal Impacts" comes last. Unlike many of the more psychologically-oriented pages here in cyberspace, the orientation here is sociological. It is here assumed that individuals' death concerns and experiences of dying and grief are strongly structured by their social environments. Indeed, to study the attitudes and fears of individuals divorced from their socio-cultural milieus would be as meaningless as ethologists studying animal behavior in zoos. The logic thus moves from the cultural order--the broad realm of of social reality that shapes our collective cognitions, emotions, and behaviors--to the institutional orders--like religion, politics, and mass media, that more directly filter and mold our experiences and routinize our actions--and finally to the individual order.

OUTLINE

GENERAL RESOURCES Data Sets
Student Survey
Off Beat
DEATH IN THE NATURAL ORDER Extinction
Sociobiology & the Immortalist Impulse
Death-Sex Connections
DEATH ACROSS CULTURES AND TIME Death in the Arts
DEATH'S IMPACTS ON SOCIAL ORDERS
HOW
WE
DIE
Inequalities of Life Revealed by Death
Accidental Deaths Homicides
Suicides AIDS
Attacks from the Natural Order
BIDS FOR

SYMBOLIC

IMMORTALITY

AND

LONGEVITY

Immortality Capitalism Style
Cemeteries
Other Ways to be remembered Obituaries
Halls of Fame
Other Memorialization Formats
Immortality through Organ Donations
Power of Dead over Living: Wills
Americans' Experiences of Being in Contact With the Dead Ghosts
NDEs: Evidence of a Hereafter?
DEATH

AND

SOCIAL

INSTITUTIONS

DEATH AND RELIGION Case Study: American Immortalism in International Perspective
Americans' beliefs in the Devil
DEATH AND POLITICAL ECONOMIES Genocide
Death and the Military
Death and Work
Death and Consumerism
DEATH IN MASS MEDIA
DEATH AND MEDICINE Hospice
MORAL DEBATES
OF OUR TIMES
Abortion Capital Punishment
Euthanasia and the Right to Die Animal Rights and Scientific Testings
PERSONAL IMPACTS OF DEATH Grief
FUNERAL GUIDES AND PLANNING
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2002
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2003
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2004
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2005
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2006
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2007
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2008
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2010
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2011
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2012
CLASS PROJECTS OF SPRING 2013

GENERAL RESOURCES

Natural Death Handbook--a book it is! Wide-ranging topics from funerals to NDEs

Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

The Natural Death Centre (UK)

Newsletter resources from the Association for Death Education and Counseling

Death: An inquiry into man's mortal weakness --an excellent site for secondary school students and teachers from ThinkQuest

Death: The Last Taboo from Australian Museum

Resources to accompany Leming and Dickenson's Understanding Dying, Death, and Bereavement

PBS's "With Eyes Open"--with sections on caregiving, intensive care, mourning and the afterlife

Death in America--Soros Foundation

Snapshot: Death and Dying in California (2006)

The Ernest Becker Foundation

Taphophilia.com "A repository of morbid curiosities"

What happens after death?--lessons from a forensic entomologist.  Know what adipocere formation is?  Another "what happens after" site for the strong of stomach.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D.: "On Death and Dying"

Growth House, Inc. is one of the premier sites for quality, evaluated links. You may wish to examine their database with the search engine below:

Growth House Search


DATA SETS

As developed above, death is a measure of life. For quantitative measures of this assertion, the following are rich resources. You may also want to take advantage of my links to health and AIDS resources. Many of the tables and graphs in this site are derived these and other federal government sources as well as from the General Social Surveys (GSS), which have been conducted almost annually since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC).

Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report
The Human Mortality Database from UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research
WHO - Mortality Database
Mortality Detail Files, 1968-1991
Social Security Death Index (SSDI) Search: Useful resource to test "death-dip" hypothesis
Human Mortality Database
UCSD Data Collection


OFFBEAT

Hopefully you have had an interesting and worthwhile time here. Any ideas or leads that you may have for this page will be most appreciated. Several visitors to this page have asked about where they can take courses (or obtain certification or degrees) in death and dying. Try this site for academic possibilities.  For Kearl's 2010 Aalborg, Denmark remarks click here or here. For his 2011 return visit: Death and Social Inequality; Death and the Medical System; Death, Work and Consumerism; and Death and the Media.









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