The Sociology of Death

March 17, 2009

Some sociologists study the social aspects of death and dying—a study called thanatology. It might seem strange that sociologists would teach courses addressing death, but some thanatologists would explain that they are not studying the biological aspects of death, but how society and people deal with death.

For example, some sociologists hold that technology has changed how we understand death. Today death is mostly associated with old age, an abnormal event such as a traffic accident, or a serious illness such as cancer. But just a short time ago, it wasn’t uncommon for young women to die in child birth, or for children and babies to die from sickness. Even a cut could lead to an infection that resulted in the death of otherwise healthy adults. Since death was so common in our near history, it was commonly dealt with through family, community, and religious organizations.

Would you like to discuss sociological aspects of death? If so, respond to one of the discussion points below or reply to someone’s post.

1. In the past, the deceased was usually prepared for burial by female members of the family. Male members of the family would prepare a coffin and dig the grave. The grave was usually in the community church yard or a family maintained grave yard. The local religious authority would preside over the ritual of burial. Family, church congregation, and the general community would see to the needs of the deceased’s survivors. How do we deal with death as a society today compared to 60 years ago? Do you think this is an improvement or a disadvantage? Why?

2. How do you think rituals associated with death and dying, such as wakes and funerals, function to strengthen social bonds in society?

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  1. Wake and funerals work to strengthen society by bringing together family and friends to take part in a persons passing on. In some cultures after a funeral some celebrate, in others some morn the loss. In ancient egypt the funeral proceedings took 70 days, time to prepare the body, morn the loss and celebrate the coming in of the new Pharaoh. Like most deaths it brings people together and that along helps the bonding of people. At most funerals and wakes the living get back in contact with those that they have fallen off with, therefore creating that bond of togetherness.

    • I agree totaly with the comment above that funerals strengthen and unite people. My family has gone through the loss of two our family members this year alone. It has united my family in many ways. We have been there to comfort each other and we have been there finacially for each other. Before the passing on of my family members we had for the most part drifted apart from one another. My grandfather was the firt to pass on and it brought all of the family on my mothers side together immediately. All of the children of my grandfather split the financial responsiblity of the funeral and burial costs which these days can be very expensive. At the funeral each families were represented by the first male born being a pallbearer. It was a sort of family reunion. At first it was very sad but it ended very good with all of us remebering my grandfather and all of the goodtimes we had shared with him. My sister passed recently also and we once again reunited for this funeral also. It seems as though our family ties have been cemented and strenghthend through the passing of both my sister and my grandfather.

  2. Native groups early on viewed death in different ways. Before contact with other races had occured,death at an early age due to unknown natural causes was seen as caused by something like a curse placed on by someone like a Shaman or someone with a grievance against an individual. When someone lived a full life and died of old age they were said to have run out of energy or lifeforce much like the energizer bunny does. This was the natives way of dealing with death and having closure. This is very interesting to me.

  3. Hello I just wanted to comment on how the females would prepare the bodies of the deceased for the burial and the males would make the casket in the article above. In or main textbook , Essentials of Sociology it states the same facts on the customary funeral traditions of the time. Look on page 17 towards the end of the page and it talks of the same traditions.

  4. This article would interest sociologist that are interested in viewing the information from the Conflict Theory point of view. Conflict THeorist would be very interested on how a community worked together on a funeral of a deceased neighbor. Theorists would also be interested on how the dties were split for example how the women dressed the bodies and how the men would make the caskets. It would be interesting because of how both genders had split roles and how things got done because of these split roles.
    Nowadays society has changed very much especially how the handling of corpses is done. I only certain individuals can determine certain details as to causes of death and so on, such as a coroner. I know there are laws that affect how deceased are handled these laws must be adhered to.

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