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Thanatology is the academic, and often scientific, study of death among human beings. It investigates the circumstances surrounding a person's death, the grief experienced by the deceased's loved ones, and larger social attitudes towards death such as ritual and memorialization. It is primarily an interdisciplinary study, frequently undertaken by professionals in nursing, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, social work and veterinary science. It also describes bodily changes that accompany death and the after-death period.
The word is derived from the Greek language. In Greek mythology, Thanatos (θάνατος: "death") is the personification of death. The English suffix -ology derives from the Greek suffix -logia (-λογια: "speaking").
In most cases, thanatology is studied as a means towards the end of providing palliative care for dying individuals and their families. According to the World Health Organization, "palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness," involving the "treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual."  Thanatology recognizes that, ultimately, death is inevitable. It works to develop guidelines to ease the process of dying.
Thanatology does not directly explore the meaning of life and of death. Medically, this question is irrelevant to those studying it. Some medical texts refer to inquiries of the meaning of life and death as absurd and futile. However, the question is very relevant to the psychological health of those involved in the dying process: individuals, families, communities, and cultures. Thanatology explores how the question affects those involved, not the question itself.
There is also a branch of thanatology called music-thanatology which focuses on the use of "music vigils" to help the individual and their family. A vigil consists of one or a team of music-thanatologists who visit the dying person. They play the harp and sing a certain repertoire of music that is very helpful to the patient and their family. Often after a vigil, the dying person is more relaxed, less agitated, and is in less pain. Many music-thanatologists are certified by the  Music-Thanatology Association International organization. Music-thanatologists use the initials "CM-Th" to designate certification by the only professional organization of music-thanatologists. Many hospitals and hospices now have professional music-thanatologists on their staff. More information may be found by searching for music-thanatology and the chalice of repose.
Fields of study
As an interdisciplinary study, thanatology relies on collaboration with many different fields of study. Death is a universal human concern; it has been examined and re-examined in a wide variety of disciplines, dating back to pre-history. Some of these fields of study are academic in nature; others have evolved throughout history as cultural traditions. Because death is such a broad and complex subject, thanatology relies on a holistic approach.
The humanities are, perhaps, the very oldest disciplines to explore death. Historically, the average human had a significantly lower standard of living and lifespan in the past than he or she would today. Wars, famine, and disease always kept death close at hand. Artists, authors, and poets often employed the universality of death as a motif in their works; this trend continues today.
The social sciences are often involved on both the individual and on the cultural level. The individual level is primarily covered by psychology, the study of individual minds. Avoiding (or, in some cases, seeking) death is an important human motive; the fear of death affects many individuals' actions.
Several social sciences focus on the broad picture, and they too frequently encounter the issue of death. Sociology is the study of social rules. No society is without its attitudes towards death. Sub-disciplines within sociology, such as the sociology of disaster, focus more narrowly on the issue of how societies handle death. Likewise, cultural anthropology and archeology concern themselves with how current and past cultures deal with death, respectively. Society and culture are similar concepts, but their scopes are different. A society is an interdependent community, while culture is an attribute of a community: the complex web of shifting patterns that link individuals together. In any case, both cultures and societies must deal with death; the various cultural studies (many of which overlap with each other) examine this response using a variety of approaches.
Both religion and mythology concern themselves with what happens after death. They usually involve reincarnation or some form of an afterlife. The universal life-death-rebirth deity glorifies those who are able to overcome death. Although thanatology does not directly investigate the question itself, it is concerned with how people choose to answer the question for themselves. For example, an individual who believes that she will go to heaven when she dies will likely be less afraid of death. Alternately, a terminally ill individual who believes that suicide is a sin may be wracked with guilt. On one hand, he may wish to end the suffering, but on the other hand, he may believe that he will be sent to hell for eternity unless he dies naturally, however long and painful that may be. The loved ones of individuals like these are likewise either consoled or distressed, depending on what they believe will ultimately happen to the dying individual. Faith can inspire comfort, anxiety, and sometimes both. This is an important point to those studying thanatology and the sociology of religion.
Medical science and applied medicine are also very important fields of study used in thanatology. The biological study of death helps explain what happens, physically, to individuals in the moment of dying and after-death bodily changes. Pharmacology investigates how prescription drugs can ease death, and in some cases prevent early deaths. Psychiatry, the medical application of psychological principles and therapeutic drugs, is also involved; many licensed psychiatrists are required to take courses on thanatology during training. Medical ethics are also an important area of study, especially on the issue of euthanasia ("right to die").
The Association for Death Education and Counseling is an international organization dedicated to promoting excellence in death education, care of the dying, grief counseling and research in thanatology. Based on quality research and theory, the association provides information, support and resources to its multicultural, multidisciplinary membership and, through it, to the public. The Association for Death Education and Counseling has a CT program where individuals can become certified in thanatology.
Currently Hood College is the only school that offers a full Masters degree in Thanatology in the US.
- Aisenberg, R. B., & Rosenthal, A. (1976). Congenital heart disease and thanatological research: Omega: Journal of Death and Dying Vol 7(4) 1976-1977, 335-350.
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