Death System

Death system, a concept introduced by Robert Kastenbaum in 1977, is defined as "the interpersonal, sociocultural, and symbolic network through which an individual's relationship to mortality is mediated by his or her society" (Kastenbaum 2001, p. 66). Through this concept, Kastenbaum seeks to move death from a purely individual concern to a larger context, understanding the role of death and dying in the maintenance and change of the social order.

Components of the Death System

To Kastenbaum, the death system in any given society has a number of components. First, people are connected to the death system. Because death is inevitable, everyone will, at one time or another, be involved with death—one's own or others.

Other individuals have more regular roles in the death system, earning their livelihood primarily by providing services that revolve around death. These include coroners and funeral directors, persons involved with life insurance, and florists. In other cases, Kastenbaum reminds society, the role may be apparent. Anyone, for example, involved in food manufacturing, especially meat, and food service, depends on the slaughter of animals. Clergy, police, firefighters, and health care workers all interact with the dying, dead, and bereaved and therefore have roles in the death system. Even statisticians who create actuarial tables play a role in the death system.

A second component of the death system is places. Places include hospitals (though they do not have the prominent role that they once had as places people go to die, at least in industrial societies), funeral homes, morgues, cemeteries, and other places that deal with the dead and dying. Memorials and battlefields are also places associated with death. Such places need not always be public. Family members may harbor superstitions or simply memories of a room or area where a loved one died.

Times are a third component of the death system. Certain holidays like Memorial Day or Halloween in U.S. culture, the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture, or All Saints' Day or Good Friday among Christian traditions are associated with a time to reflect upon or remember the dead. Again, different cultural groups, family systems, or individuals may hold other times, such as the anniversary of a death, battle, or disaster, as times to remember.

Objects and symbols are the remaining components of the death system. Death-related objects are diverse, ranging from caskets to mourning clothes, even to bug spray "that kills them dead." Symbols too are diverse. These refer to rituals such as Catholic "last rites" or funeral services, and symbols such as a skull and cross that warn of or convey death. Because language is a symbolic system, the words a society uses to discuss death are part of the death system as well.

Functions of the Death System

Kastenbaum takes a sociological approach, drawing from a broad, theoretical stream within sociology called "structure-functionalism." This approach basically states that every system or structure within a society survives because it fulfills manifest and latent functions for the social order. Change occurs when the system no longer adequately fulfills its functions, due, for example, to changing social conditions, or until innovations emerge that better address these functions. To Kastenbaum, the death system fulfills a series of critical functions.

Warning and predicting death. This function refers to the varied structures within a society that warn individuals or collectivities about impending dangers. Examples of organizations that fulfill these functions include weather forecasting agencies that may post warnings, media that carries such warnings, and emergency personnel who assist in these events. It also includes laboratories and physicians that interpret test results to patients.

Caring for the dying. This category offers a good example of cultural change. The hospital was seen as ineffective by many in caring for the dying, so new cultural forms such as hospice and palliative care emerged to fulfill these functions.

Disposing of the dead. This area includes practices that surround the removal of a body, rituals, and methods of disposal. Being that every culture or generational cohort has its own meaningful ways to dispose of the dead, this can lead to strains when cultures differ.

Social consolidation after death. When an individual dies, other members of the society, such as the family or the work unit, have to adjust and consolidate after that death. In the Middle Ages, for example, the guild system that included masters (i.e., skilled and experienced professionals), intermediate-level journeymen, and beginning apprentices served to mediate the impact of often sudden death by creating a system that allowed for constant replacement. In industrial society, retirement removes workers from the system, lessening the impact of eventual death. In American society, funeral rituals and spontaneous memorialization, self-help and support groups, and counselors are examples of other structures that support consolidation.

Making sense of death. Every society has to develop ways to understand and make sense of loss. One of the values of funeral rituals is that they allow for a death to be interpreted within a given faith or philosophical viewpoint.

Killing. Every death system has norms that indicate when, how, and for what reasons individuals or other living creatures can be killed. There are international treaties that define what weapons and what killings are justifiable in war. Different cultures determine the crimes an individual can be executed for as well as the appropriate methods of execution. Cultures, too, will determine the reason and ways that animals may be killed.

Death systems are not static. They constantly evolve to deal with changing circumstances and situations. For example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have led to the development of whole new systems for airline security that include new personnel, regulations, and places such as screening and identification. As causes of death have changed, new institutions such as hospice and nursing homes have developed. A series of social changes, such as demographic shifts, historical factors (i.e., the development of nuclear weapons), and cultural changes (i.e., increasing diversity), have led to the development of the death studies movement. Because it is a related system, changes in one part of the system are likely to generate changes in other parts of the system. For example, the growth of home-based hospice has led hospitals to reevaluate their care of the dying, contributing to the current interest in palliative care.

Thanatology is often more focused on the clinical, stressing the needs of dying and bereaved individuals. While the concept of the death system has not received widespread attention, it is a powerful reminder of the many ways that death shapes the social order.

See also: Genocide ; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Memorialization, Spontaneous ; Social Functions of Death


Doka, Kenneth J. "The Rediscovery of Death: The Emergence of the Death Studies Movement." In Charles Corr, Judith Stillion, and Mary Ribar eds., Creativity in Death Education and Counseling. Hartford, CT: The Association for Death Education and Counseling, 1983.

Kastenbaum, Robert. Death, Society, and Human Experience, 7th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.


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