Social Functions of Death

When one reflects on the social upheavals and personal tragedies inflicted by deadly epidemics, terrorist attacks, droughts, and floods, it takes a change in thinking to reflect upon death's social functions. Further, one must consider from whose perspective death is perceived to be "functional." The bubonic plague, for instance, meant the death of roughly 25 million Europeans, but it also was the death knell for feudalism and, according to the historian William McNeill, laid the groundwork for capitalism. The death of a military tyrant may well be functional for his oppressed peoples, but dysfunctional for his nation's allies. Here we consider the positive effects for self and society as well as the ways societies attempt to harness death's power and minimize its disruptiveness.

Sociological Functions Served

As the old maxim goes, for there to be life there must be death. This holds true not only for biological systems but social systems as well. Just as programmed aging and death are evolution's requirements for species to gradually change over time, so social stability and change require the death of older generations so younger ones can take their turns on center stage.

Death checks population growth and avoids the Malthusian nightmare of overcrowding. As wildlife biologists know, once a species reproduces itself beyond the carrying capacity of its habitat, natural checks and balances come into play. Any species that breeds excessively will eventually experience a "die-back" or "population crash." The human species is not immune to this natural law, which is why the birth in 1999 of the planet's 6 billionth member received the mixed reception that it did: Human numbers had doubled since 1960 and tripled since 1927. Over the past 2,000 years the doubling time of the human population has accelerated roughly fortyfold, from sixteen centuries to forty years.

Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford professor of population studies and biological sciences, in The Population Bomb (1968), predicted that the population of the third world would double in the following quarter century and, unless a "birth rate solution" was made, one of three "death rate solution" scenarios would occur. These scenarios featured limited nuclear war, famine, social chaos, and deadly pollution. Humanity made it to the new millennium, of course, without the mass death Ehrlich had predicted. By the mid-1990s, fertility rates declined by at least one-half in seventeen countries. However, his grim prophecy may have only been postponed. Overfishing, overgrazing, and overcutting have become commonplace, as have shortages of fresh water suitable for human use.

Death constantly replenishes the vitality of the gene and meme (the cultural equivalent of DNA) pools, allowing for innovation and change. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn describes how new scientific paradigms do not succeed by virtue of their truth but rather come to be accepted when proponents of old ones die off. Similarly, social progress in matters of gender and racial equality in the United States occurs when older generations die with their prejudices and beliefs. For instance, between 1972 and 1998, the percentage of white Americans who answered "yes" to the question, "Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?" decreased by two-thirds, from 39 percent to 13 percent. Approximately 40 percent of this decrease can be statistically explained by the deaths of older generations over the time frame.

In hierarchical organizations, death allows the upward mobility of younger generations, thereby securing their loyalty to the social order. Death of older generations allows younger ones to have their turn on life's central stages. Relatedly, death dilutes concentrations of power and wealth; consider, for instance, the Rockefeller family. Time has fragmented the wealth accumulated by John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839–1937), whose Standard Oil at its peak controlled 90 percent of the American oil industry. In 1976 there were eighty-four descendants of John Sr.'s only son, John Jr.; a quarter century later they numbered in the hundreds.

Somewhat more abstractly, there is the power of death to bring people together, producing new social solidarities. Death commands human attention and its associated rituals, like human sacrifices and martyrdom, harness death's power to increase social solidarities and promote change. An example of how death can lead to new solidarities coalescing in the cause of greater social justice can be seen in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. Before this disaster garment workers, largely fearful immigrant women, were unorganized. The broader public was generally indifferent or ignorant of the child labor being exploited, and was often opposed to unions. On one Saturday afternoon fire broke out in New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Company, wherein 500 workers were crammed. Doors were locked to keep the young immigrant children within and labor organizers out. In the end 146 died, and were seen on the sidewalk in piles where they landed after nine-story jumps. The dead became martyrs for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which called for a day of mourning. With union pressure against unsafe working conditions, the New York State governor appointed the Factory Investigation Commission. Its hearings led to the passage of factory safety regulations.

Social groups often harness the power released by the deaths of their members to amplify the solidarities among the living. Consider, for instance, the November 1999 bonfire accident that killed eleven Texas A&M students and one alumnus. At 10:00 P.M. on the first Tuesday of the following month, the university community gathered in silence to observe Silver Taps, a century-old ritual for remembering fellow students who had died the month before. In this ceremony, silence is broken by three volleys of seven rifles followed by trumpeters playing taps. On April 21 the students' memories were reaffirmed on Texas Aggie Memorial Day. Honoring a tradition that has been in place since 1883, all around the world alumni of Texas A&M gather annually for a roll call (the Muster) of those who had died during the previous year.

Social-Psychological Functions

At a more social-psychological level, death poses the ultimate of "deadlines" and thereby forces prioritization and the setting of personal and collective goals. As is the case of all endings, death forces reflection and summary. Rarely does one give words to life's core meanings and goals, nor reflect on how life would have differed had not one existed, except within funerary observances. In addition, there is death's power to enhance appreciation of life. When ruminating on the leukemia death of his eighteen-year-old daughter, the baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew shared the lessons he learned, such as appreciating what you have and the importance of giving one's child extra attention.

Several ingenious experiments have supported the social scientist Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize–winning thesis of how personal death anxieties intensify individuals' allegiance to moral codes. For example, in 1989 psychologist Abram Rosenblatt of the University of Arizona and his colleagues organized an experiment where eleven municipal judges were told to write about their own deaths, including what they thought would happen physically and what emotions were evoked when they thought about it. A control group of eleven other judges was spared the activity. When asked to set bond for a prostitute on the basis of a case brief, those who had thought about their deaths set an average bond of $455, while the average in the control group was $50. From this and other experiments researchers found that when awareness of death is increased, in-group solidarity is intensified, out-groups become more despised, and prejudice and religious extremism are increased.

How societies dampen death's disruptiveness. Despite its occasional social functions, death—even the "good," anticipated deaths of those who have lived full, complete lives—is invariably disruptive. To minimize the inevitable schism in the social fabric, a number of social shock absorbers have evolved to manage the problem of immortal social systems being populated by mortal members.

The most apparent of the social mechanisms for coping with death is the funerary ritual. Funerals evolved not only to dispose of the dead and to assist the surviving, but to harness death's power and direct it toward the reaffirmation of social solidarities. Consider the 1990 funeral of the business tycoon Malcolm Forbes, which attracted an assemblage of varied individuals, including such notables as Richard Nixon, Lee Iacocca, Barbara Walters, David Rockefeller, Ann Landers, and Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, as well as Hell's Angels motorcyclists.

Death's disruptiveness can be dampened by minimizing the social status of those most likely to die. For most of human history, for instance, children comprised the largest segment of societies' mortalities. Whereas in the twenty-first century a child cannot leave an American hospital until he or she is named, at least as late as the eighteenth century American children were often not called by name until they were about six years of age or older. The main reason that children "did not count" was their considerable likelihood of death; most couples could expect to lose two or three children before they reached the age of ten. In Puritan New England, parents often would send their children away to the home of relatives or friends. Ostensibly this was a method of discipline (Protestantism assisted the distancing by viewing children as sinful and corrupt) but in actuality this act served to prevent parents' emotional closeness to their children and thereby minimize their inevitable emotional pain if the children died. With social evolution, the old replaced the young as the cultural death lepers as they became those most likely to die. The Puritan custom of sending children away has been replaced by the American practice of sending the elderly to nursing homes to be cared for by others.

Social systems can also hide the dying and grieving processes, further minimizing the disruptions of dying and death. In contemporary American society, a reportedly "death-denying" culture, specialists are paid to impersonally manage the deaths of family members within institutional settings (where roughly seven out of ten now die) and then pay others to dispose of their physical remains.

The deaths of powerful leaders, particularly those of "founding fathers" and of charismatic individuals, pose severe crises of continuity for political, religious, and corporate systems alike. The power vacuum (and associated threats of disorder) becomes particularly acute when their deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly. Even rumors of their impending end of life can trigger power struggles from within and incite challenges from without. To address such crises of succession, social systems have devised explicit rules for the changing of the guard. In the United States, for instance, between 1841 and 1975 more than one-third of all the country's presidents have either died in office, quit, or become disabled, and seven vice presidents have either died or resigned. In response to this social phenomenon, the 1947 Presidential Succession Law specifies an order of presidential succession (comprised of sixteen role incumbents, beginning with the Speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, and secretary of state) should both the president and vice president die or be incapacitated simultaneously. In addition to the transference of power, social groups, particularly families, attempt to avoid conflict over the disposition of the deceased's possessions through rules of inheritance.

The changing nature of social roles has contributed to society's ability to dampen death's disruptive effects. Historically, there has been the shift from particularistic to universalistic roles, meaning that individuals are rarely known as entire selves but rather as role occupants. This creates an analytical distinction between individual and role, unlike the earlier situation where the two were so thoroughly fused that the death of the individual meant the death of the role. Instead, twenty-first-century roles can rarely be held indefinitely by their incumbents, but rather must be ritually surrendered. Roles have become more important than their inter-changeable occupants. Within the bureaucratic structure of contemporary societies, such ritual surrenderings are part of the institutionalized rules of succession. In the case of the elderly and the institutionalization of retirement, older individuals are disengaged from many of their social roles to minimize the disruptions caused by their deaths. Further, given the accelerating pace of social change, many of these roles themselves have become obsolete before their occupants have grown old.

Finally, there are the successes of modern societies' war against premature death. By minimizing death risks—through environmental cleanups, warnings of the health dangers of cigarettes, gun control, improvements in sanitation, use of antibiotics to control infectious diseases, political control over the purity of food, and building safer vehicles—death is largely confined to the old. Rarely needed are the historical cultural consolations for the sudden, premature deaths, as death often comes to those who have completed their life projects and who, when suffering from the degenerative diseases of advanced age, often view death as preferable to a continued existence. And for the survivors of elderly victims of Huntington's chorea or Alzheimer's disease, their deaths may actually be viewed as a blessing.

See also: Capital Punishment ; Death System ; Malthus, Thomas ; Population Growth ; Technology and Death ; Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire


Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Blauner, Robert. "Death and Social Structure." Psychiatry 29 (1966):378–394.

Davis, James Allan, and Tom W. Smith. General Social Surveys, 1972–1996. Produced by the National Opinion Research Center, Chicago. Roper Public Opinion Research Center, 1998. Machine readable data tape.

Ehrlich, Paul. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine, 1968.

Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, et al. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, (1990):308–318.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Stucture of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.

Rosenblatt, Abram, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, et al. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory I: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Violate or Uphold Cultural Values." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989):681–690.

Stannard, David. Death in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975.


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