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The Social Context of Death and Dying

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Published: Wed, 10 Jan 2018

Introduction

Using course materials from Death and Dying, I will discuss the idea that death is something to be feared. I will use course material from Block 1, The Social Context of Death and Dying, focusing on units 1 and 2. I will provide evidence of arguments for and against this notion and consider other attitudes of how these views are formed by society. I will also illustrate my answers using materials form the course website, reader and audio activities. I have also incorporated some personal and professional experience. in an attempt to illustrate my points.

Death is portrayed and discussed in various ways by people from all walks of life, their upbringing and religious views can have an impact on how they perceive death. As discussed in Block 1, one indicator that death is something to fear is our use of language. This anxiety is demonstrated in the euphemisms individuals use when describing or explaining a death. For example when undertaking activity 1.1, Explaining the meaning of death, (Block 1, unit 1, pg 1). I discussed my first experience of death. I recall having to explain to my youngest sibling that our mother had died. My sister was 8 years old and I sat her down and spoke firstly about angels and the stars. I went on to tell her that God had decided he needed mum to be an angel. I couldn’t bear to use the word dead as I was struggling with mum being dead and was of the view that using the word ‘dead’ would have been too painful and therefore spoke about angels to make it less emotive. Since then I have experienced the death of other relatives and friends and find that I will use euphemisms such as, “passed away” or “gone to a better place”. I have also heard myself use phrases such as “kicked the bucket, however, this is usually when referring to someone I didn’t really know.

A number of examples are provided in block 1 in relation to euphemisms used to describe what occurs after death. Spiritualist and Mediums use words such as “crossing over” or “passed over” as they see the death as the beginning of a journey from this world to what they describe as the ‘spirit world’. Komaromy (2005) spoke of how she found that whilst exploring how death and dying were managed in care homes, was “frequently met with difficulty over the use of words ‘death’, ‘dying’ and ‘dead’” (Block 1, unit 1, section 1.2, pg 13). It would appear the fear of using these words were not necessarily from the residents themselves but by those who cared for them.

The beliefs instilled in people from a young age from their family, educational professionals and religious sources as well as their personal experience of death can often have a profound impact on how they perceive death and dying. Roman Catholics appear comfortable when speaking about death as they see death as a momentous event that should not be feared. Catholics believe in life after death, stating the soul leaves the body and will normally spend a period in Purgatory and when the soul is cleansed of the temporal consequences of sin they will enter heaven. However some anxiety remains, as for many, there is uncertainty of how long their soul will remain in purgatory. “They do not fear the next world, but rather the passage, the crossing over……..” (Toscani, et al(2003), OU course material, website).

Professor Douglas Davis’ research highlighted that gender plays a significant role in the belief in life after death in contemporary British Society. He states that women are far more likely to believe in an afterlife, than men, with a ratio of almost 2:1. He informs 30% of the population with a similar gender imbalance believe the dead remain among us and have had contact in one form or another with their loved one. (Audio1, activity 1.8, Identity and Belief). This I would argue is based on a person’s knowledge of the deceased and is linked to their sense of identity and the need to continue the link with their loved one, which in turn may offer comfort and peace of mind to those who are bereaved. People also seek comfort through contact with the dead via spiritualists and mediums, in an effort to communicate with loved ones. Justine Picardie describes this as attending a social gathering of the dead (Picardie in Making Sense of Death and Dying and Bereavement: An Anthology, pg 198, Earle, et al).

Research and studies regarding the beliefs and views of individuals in life after death vary from person to person depending on their religious or non-religious beliefs. For example the article “Life at the end of Life: beliefs about individual life after death and “good death” models – a qualitive study” Toscani, F., et al, highlights two different models and arguments regarding death and what would be classed as a “good death”. The attitudes and assumptions depend on whether the individual is a believer or non-believer but even then there can be conflicting opinions between faiths.

Tibetan Buddhism describes in great detail the process of death and the passage over. Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and when an individual is dying, there is a common conception that it is good to read this book to the dying person. “By understanding the death process and familiarisingour self with it, we can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth” (Death and Dying in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, Hawter; V.P – internet source: Buddahnet.com). In contrast, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs regarding death are totally different from those of other religions. Adventists believe that people do not die nor do they go to Heaven or Hell. It is their belief that the individual “goes to sleep and will rise again on the Day of Judgement”. (Kormaromy, 2005, Block1, unit 1, section 1.2, pg13). By this they mean the person will remain unconscious until the return of Christ.

The views of atheists vary, although the consensus is that there is no life after death, that when we die, we die, and that is it. “If I am, death is not; if death is, I am no longer: why, then, fear death?” (Toscani,et al(2003), OU course website, pg 8). This does not mean that atheists do not have a fear of death, like believers there are similarities with regards to how they will die and where they would like to die. I worked with a family whose child was dying. When trying to support the family through this difficult period they spoke of feeling angry at individuals who had questioned why they were not in church praying. They informed me that as far as they were concerned that when their child died that was the end. They stated their only fear was that their child would die alone if they left his side.

The management of death and dying has changed over time. French Historian, Phillipe Aries claimed that in the Middle Ages people appeared more optimistic with regards to death, as they acknowledged death as part of life, as it unavoidable. The death affected not only the family of the deceased but the community as a whole. With individuals being assigned particular roles, for example, preparing the body for burial, announcing the death and it was customary to view the body of the deceased. Death was a common occurrence and this may explain why death was seen as inevitable and therefore not feared.

Aires argued that after the 19th century death in western society was hidden and following the First World War, death became a taboo subject and was no longer seen as a natural process of life. (Block 1, unit 2.2, pg 38). The explanation for this could be that it was due to what we know as the ‘nuclear family’ era? Norbert Elias (1985) would argue that in today’s society the role of preparing the deceased has been taken over by funeral directors who offer a wide range of services to the family. This includes collecting and preparing the body for burial or cremation. In my own recent experience of the death of my son, the only duty the funeral director could not undertake was to register the death. Elias argument “is that dying people are now more isolated than in the past” (Block 1, Unit 2.2 pg40).

It should be noted that some traditions continue, for example, the viewing of the deceased remains within many faiths be it within a church setting or funeral directors chapel of rest, although this is usually by family and close friends. This could explain why Aires theory that death after the 19th century did not have an overall impact on the community but rather than on a smaller network, family and friends. German Sociologist, Norbert Elias (1985), (Block 1, unit 2.2, pg 40) challenged Aires ideas, that in the past, death was accepted as being a natural process. Elias claimed death was painful as life was much shorter and more dangerous.

Conclusion

Perhaps the idea of life after death allows us to cope with what can only be seen as a natural fear as the alternative, non-existence is unimaginable and we are psychologically inept to deal with this. Therefore we need to ask the question is death something feared by all? Is this a hypothesis or could it be that for many individuals, especially, those in old age or with a terminal illness that death could be the beginning of something better. It can therefore be argued that whilst individuals and society have diverse opinions regarding death and what happens to them when they die, the majority do have a fear of how they will die. For example being alone, suffering pain, dying young or, being forgotten.


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