Thanatology is the study of death and dying, encompassing the events, thoughts, feelings and attitudes associated with the end of life. This field of work examines death from a variety of perspectives - including death's psychological, social, cultural, medical, legal and ethical aspects.
It is therefore an interdisciplinary study and a common territory of psychology, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, medicine and forensic science, using the resources and serving the needs of these and other scientific fields. The range of professionals involved in thanatology includes nursing specialists and other healthcare providers, social researchers, historians, philosophers and theologists, as well as medical researchers and forensic pathologists.
The term thanatology derives from the Greek word for death, thanatos, and logos, which means speech or discourse. Studying death as a separate scientific discipline was first proposed in 1903 by Russian biologist Élie Metchnikoff, who saw a need to study death systematically in order to complete the scope of life sciences.
The study of death, however, remained relatively unpopular until World War II, when the painful reality of death claimed the attention of researchers. An important driving force for thanatology at that point was American psychologist Herman Feifel. He is credited with breaking the taboos related to death, dying and bereavement, making them acceptable topics of discussion and establishing them as worthy subjects of study. Feifel was the editor of The Meaning of Death, a 1959-published collection of essays by renowned thinkers including Carl Jung, Paul Tillich and Herbert Marcuse that expedited the study of death and became a classic in the field.
Feifel's work was an influence to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Switzerland-born psychiatrist who studied dying patients and promoted the idea of offering them psychological counseling. In her widely successful book from 1969, On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross identifies five mental stages through which dying people go: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This idea, known as the Kübler-Ross model, received wide recognition among professionals working with dying patients and their families.
Another work that helped thanatology gain traction was The Psychology of Death (1972) by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg. The book and its two revised editions focus on the conceptions of death. It discusses anxiety, suicide and physician-assisted death.
Much of the research undertaken in thanatology, including the work of Kübler-Ross, finds its application in the field of palliative care: the alleviation of physical and psychological suffering in order to make the process of dying easier for terminally ill people and for their loved ones. While recognizing that death is inevitable, thanatology does not try to answer the question about the meaning of life. However, it does examine how those affected by death deal with this question.
Apart from its individual level, thanatology has a broader, cultural and social aspect, which employs techniques of sociology and other social sciences. For instance, life expectancy rates can be studied to judge how developed a particular society is, or homicide rates in different countries can be compared to determine how stable social structures are. Comparing the death rates of different social groups can offer insights into inequalities that exist between the groups and the effects of them. Thanatology furthermore examines death as a socially constructed idea, looking into the way different cultures perceive and deal with death, the death-related rituals and ceremonies they have developed and their mourning practices.
A separate facet of thanatology concerns itself with the changes in the body that occur in the process of dying and after death as well as with the causes of death, which is how thanatology is linked to forensic science. Legal issues within the scope of thanatology are the requirements for autopsy, burial, cremation and embalming and the rights over the remains of the deceased. From the standpoint of ethics, thanatology discusses the issues of euthanasia, life support, organ transplantation and abortion.
Thanatology relates to parapsychology in that it investigates experiences sometimes reported to be part of dying, such as the feeling of floating out of the body, the perception of complete serenity and security or visions of someone previously deceased. Kübler-Ross was one of the thanatologists who researched the so-called out-of-body and near-death experiences. Near the end of her career, she began viewing death as a transition to another form of living rather than as the final stage of life.