... any mans death, diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

-John Donne, Devotions

With growing international interdependencies and world-wide communications, John Donne's famous insight is perhaps even truer now than it was almost four centuries ago. Each individual, of course, makes unique contributions to the social order and his or her death means not only the cessation of these contributions but also the partial deaths of all of those for whom the deceased was a significant other. For example, consider the death of a close friend--a person who applauded your accomplishments, consoled you during your disappointments, and brought out of you a self that you both liked and enjoyed. With the death of this person comes the simultaneous destruction of a portion of yourself, a self never again to be reactivated.

Death's impacts ripple not only across acquaintance networks in space but across time as well. In early 1997, the death of the oldest survivor of the "unsinkable" Titanic's 1912 demise was reported on the news wires. This tragedy, which took over 1,400 lives, continues to capture the public imagination and to kindle debates over 90 years later. What were the cumulative effects of so many deaths on succeeding generations? The young victims were never to have families of their own, never to have the opportunity to make a medical breakthrough or to inspire their contemporaries with words or music. The adults--largely males--were never to continue their roles as parents or grandparents, perhaps never to leave their memory on the consciousness of those now alive. To this day, on the anniversary of the RMS Titanic's sinking, a handful of men, formally dressed in black ties (realizing his doomed fate, Titanic passenger Benjamin Guggenheim reportedly donned his evening dress so that he could "die like a gentleman"), gather on the  Washington Channel near Fort McNair to toast "those brave men" who gave their lives so that women and children might be saved.

Such premature deaths invite the "what if" inquiries: What if President Lincoln had not been assassinated? Would reconstruction have left the indelible scars that we find throughout the American South? What if President Kennedy has not been assassinated? Would America have been spared the crises of moral doubt and political cynicism spawned by the Vietnam War and Watergate? What if Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had not been assassinated?


So long as our actions are intelligible, they are intelligible within a system of meaning. And meaning, as we have seen, is not the product of individual minds but of relationships. ... Similarly, it is not the isolated individual who is born and who dies; one is born into relatedness, both defined by it and defining it. Upon one's death, it is a pattern of relationships that perishes.

--Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self

Perhaps the central accomplishment of modern societies has been their ability to largely control untimely death. No longer are most premature deaths caused by the forces of nature (e.g., earthquakes, epidemics, starvation due to drought, or attacks by large predatory animals). Instead, nowadays a majority of deaths of the non-elderly are usually caused by avoidable accidents, homicides and suicides. In large part, modernization means that people can assume that the world is a safe place for those who follow the rules, and that death can generally be avoided until old age.

Not surprisingly, when this need for security is not met--as during earthquakes, aircraft crashes, pandemics or tornadoes--the psychological consequences can be profound.  (To keep track of such events check out Disaster News Network.) For victims and witnesses alike, basic trust and even the sense of self-worth are damaged. The young are particularly affected by such catastrophic events. In a study of forty Cambodian teenagers who survived the Khmer Rouge death camps of the late 1970s, David Kinzie and his associates found a host of psychological problems, including recurrent nightmares, inability to concentrate, depression, self-pity, and a pessimistic outlook on life. Two-thirds suffered from "survivor's guilt," deep remorse for having lived when other family members died.

The sociological consequences of such violations are equally destructive. When basic needs are not met, humans are often reduced to basic survival impulses. Perhaps first to be destroyed is basic trust. When trust evaporates, an individual's commitment to collective needs is weakened as one is no longer sure that others share this sense of duty. Without trust, there can be no sense of fairness, no faith that one will be treated by others as one treats them. In Chad, an inhospitable African land where life has always been marginal, the devastating drought of the 1980s unraveled the social fabric that had enabled civility to persist. In families, the men ate first, the women second, and the children last. Parents let their sick children die so that there would be more for the survivors to eat.

Such assaults of death on the social order give insight into how terrorism "works." When, for instance, a terrorist sprays bullets into a shopping mall deep within the American Midwest, his bullets also puncture the protective social bubble and lets enter the senses of social violation and powerlessness. Such was also the case in what was the worst terrorist attack on American soil until 9-11-01, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building, that killed 168.  For the victims of the attacks, no longer is their world benign; no longer are they willing to take risks. With the existence of such doubts comes the lack of trust in "the system" and in other people. This can lead to increased demands on the political system to eradicate such threats, leading to a decrease in civil liberties.

To illustrate this impact of death on basic trust, consider the relationship between whether or not one personally knows one who was murdered in the previous year and responses to the question "Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?"  According to the NORC General Social Surveys:




KNOW MURDER VICTIM 79% 51% 49% 27 50%
DON'T KNOW 57% 39% 28% 19 34%
% DIFFERENCE 22.6 11.4 20.9 8.3  

We see from the right-most column that those who personally know a recent victim of homicide are nearly half-again (50/34) as likely to believe that others generally try to take advantage of you.  This ratio is the greatest for the middle (75% ) and upper (42%) classes--those most likely to feel secure by virtue of their lofty positions within the status hierarchy.

In sum, death disrupts not only the social bonds of a society but the very social atom as well, the individual, for whom death can destroy the taken-for-granted assumptions required for social motivation and social participation.

Death, whether collective or singular, profoundly alters the social order. Its disruptive potential is a function of:


Still echoing in Western consciousness are the epidemics of the Middle Ages which killed millions of Europeans (the Black Death of 1347-51 alone may have killed as many as one-third of the population). They also hastened the demise of the European feudal order. Class tensions were increasingly aggravated, as it was often the poor who died as the rich fled for rural sanctuaries. As one Toulouse bourgeois coolly observed in 1561: "the aforesaid contagious disease only attacks poor people ... let God in his mercy be satisfied with that.... The rich protect themselves against it" (Braudel, 1981:85). Social duties were either abandoned or conducted at a distance: French parliaments and English courts emigrated, mayors and lawyers fled their posts, and municipal officers forgot their responsibilities. The frayed nerves of society were further agitated by increasing political and ecclesiastical corruption. Offices had to be filled as their former holders died, and often only power- and money-seeking individuals could be found. The church's infallibility claims were to be challenged because of the high mortality rate of its priests: if the plague was intended only for sinners and its victims included priests, then the priests must be sinners. Further, anticlericism was fueled by the surviving priests' fleeing their congregations and being replaced by the undereducated and unworthy. To add to the problem, the church abandoned its ordination practices during and shortly after the plague. The sacraments performed by the priests were supposed to ward off the anger of God. However, since the priests were not ordained and thus did not carry the blessing of God, how could the sacraments be valid?

The medieval death system could not provide the technological defense, eschatological meaning, nor psychological comfort (death was still understood as punishment for man's sins) in the face of mass death. Such impotence seriously undermined the legitimacy and authority of political and religious institutions. People became demoralized and turned to new forms of meaning, perhaps accounting for the sudden popularity of the flagellant and occult movements. Some historians see the corruption of the clergy as eventually resulting in the Reformation. Further, as populations shifted, lifestyles changed, altering the social texture: manners declined, gaudy fashions became popular, and new symbols emerged.

The megadeath associated with the bubonic plague also may have put Western culture on its trajectory toward capitalism. The peasants who survived became enriched through their numerous inheritances and were to realize an enhanced power because of the scarcity of their numbers. Prices fell as the market became glutted. The switch to wages and rents, already in progress, was accelerated as those working for wages could demand higher ones and those who were not could sell their services; in short, labor became a commodity. Landlords had to rent property in order to pay the labor, and, to attract renters, rents had to be cut almost in half in some areas. As wages skyrocketed in urban areas by as much as 50 to 150 percent, governments passed maximum price and wage laws that later led to rebellion, especially among the peasants.

Joel-Peter Witkin's (New York Times) "The Plague Years: What the Black Death and Aids have in common 

Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year

Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe


In 1996, the U.N. reported more than three million people--8,500 each day--mostly under 25, have become newly infected with the AIDS virus, bringing to nearly 23 million the total number of infected individuals. In the 15 years since the discovery of AIDS, an additional 6.4 million people, approximately one quarter occurring last year. In the United States, where a new case of HIV infection is diagnosed every 36 seconds, AIDS has become the leading cause of death among those aged 25 to 44. In 1995, the disease was the leading cause of death in men and women in 79 of 169 American cities with populations greater than 100,000 population.

What are the social, economic, political, moral, lifestyle, and psychological implications of this epidemic?


In 2008 there were numerous observances of the 90th anniversary of the pandemic whose lethality dwarfed the losses of World War I.  Between 50 and 100 million people succumbed to the epidemic world wide; at least 500,000 perished in the United States. 

From the Centers for Disease Control, Pandemic Influenza Storybook: Personal recollections from survivors, families, and friends

From the Department of Health and Human Services, The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919

From PBS's "American Experience, Influenza 1918


Selena Tribute


To dampen the disruptions caused by the death of social members, social systems have devised various cultural "shock absorbers." These strategies include:


Thus far we have considered some of the dysfunctional effects of death on society but there are positive functions as well. Some of these include:

Your additions to this page are welcomed. In addition to expanding the lists above, I would appreciate web-based illustrations of each.

Return to Kearl's Death Index