Thanatology is the study of dying, death, and grief. This study encompasses thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and events. Contributors to the growing knowledge of death-related phenomena include social, behavioral, and biomedical researchers as well as economists, health-care providers, historians, literary critics, philosophers, and theologians.
The word thanatology is derived from Greek mythology. Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep) were twin deities. It was not until 1903 that distinguished scientist Elie Metchnikoff called for the establishment of a scientific discipline devoted to the study of death. He suggested that the life sciences would not be complete unless systematic attention was also given to death. Nevertheless, only a few scholars and educators followed his lead. Medical students had their obligatory encounters with cadavers but received almost no instruction in care for the dying, nor was death included in the curriculum for students of other professions and sciences.
The situation started to change following World War II, with its many casualties and haunted memories. Existential philosophers redirected attention to life-and-death issues. Researchers such as Herman Feifel challenged Western society's taboo on death, opening the way for improved communication. An international suicide-prevention effort responded to the anguish both of people contemplating self-destruction and their family and friends. The hospice movement introduced improved means of caring for dying people, and grief-support groups provided comfort to many who had been alone in their distress. Death education overcame early resistance to become a significant resource in both formal and informal settings. Thantological challenges in the twenty-first century include the emerging issues of physician-assisted death, children's rights, and lifestyle behaviors such as excessive drinking, use of tobacco products, and unsafe operation of motor vehicles that contribute to more than a million deaths a year in the United States.
See also: Anthropological Perspective ; Cadaver Experiences ; Children and Their Rights in Life and Death Situations ; Death Education ; Feifel, Herman ; Hospice Option ; Psychology ; Saunders, Cicely ; Suicide Types: Physician-Assisted Suicide
Feifel, Herman. The Meaning of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
McGinnis, J. M., and W. H. Foege. "Actual Causes of Death in the United States." Journal of the American Medical Associations 270 (1993):2207-2212.
Metchnikoff, Elie. The Nature of Man. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1959.