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The Concept of Death and Dying

Death represents a significant stage in human development and has different perceptions among individuals. Death in the social context is not connected to the physiological causes and consequences or the theological perspective of death and dying. Instead, sociology focuses on how the members of society interpret death, what they think about it, and their attitudes towards it.

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According to Thompson et al., death, dying, and bereavement represents “emotionally charged phenomena,” and emotions are directly related to sociology, in a sense “how emotions are conceptualized, experienced, and responded to” (172). Thus, those aspects depend on various sociological structures and processes. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the concept of death and dying, its key characteristics, impacts on individuals, family, and society, and related critical issues.

First, it is essential to look at the definition of death that has changed throughout history. Decades ago, death was defined by the cardiopulmonary end that was characterized by the lack of heartbeat and respiration (Newman and Newman 589). Later, a more extended description of the stage occurred, with the addition of neurological factors. In 1981, several criteria describing whole-brain death were identified by the President’s Commission for the Ethical Study of Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (Newman and Newman 589). As a result, a broader definition of death came in place.

A Uniform Determination of Death Act states that “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory function or all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” mean individual’s death (Lewis et al. 113). The physiological factors connected to the organism’s functioning define death. Still, various cultures and societies view death and dying differently. Consequently, it is challenging to provide one single definition of the analyzed concept due to the diversity of beliefs.

It is crucial to understand the difference between death and dying, although they form one concept. The paragraph above states the definition of death, and dying is a part of living when death has not yet taken place (Corr et al. 131). Thus, death is the next developmental stage following life, while dying still implies that an individual is alive but on his journey towards death. A crucial aspect of dying is coping with it, which involves more than an individual who is mortally sick. Dealing with the near end of a person represents a challenge for others who are part of the situation, including family, friends, and caregivers (Corr et al. 135).

Therefore, the process of dying that involves accepting a forthcoming death has a significant impact on different people. This experience can also shape personal opinions about death and dying, formulating future perception of dramatic losses. Besides, it implies a variety of emotions among the parties involved, due to the psychological side of the process.

It is also interesting to mention that, throughout history, dying was believed to take place at different times, and the perception of this stage has transformed. In the Stone Age, dying followed death, when family prepared the body for the future journey (Cottrell and Duggleby 686). The developments in agriculture and other spheres brought infectious diseases, which, in turn, created an “awareness of impending death” (Cottrell and Duggleby 686).

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Consequently, people knew about the approaching death, which shifted the process of dying before death in modern society. An understanding that death is coming made it possible to prepare for the required ritual and the loss, extending the process of grief and related stress. Still, although today dying is believed to precede physical death, the rituals of preparing the body for the journey remain.

As the introduction mentions, it is crucial to consider numerous sociological contemplations to generate a realization of the emotional sides of death and dying. One of the aspects in this area is the sociological context that influences the perception of death, dying and bereavement. Social context can contribute to the transformation of an individual’s actions, opinions, and responses (Thompson et al. 174). Consequently, the context in which one is living and operating can also influence the reaction to death and dying. As a result, the surroundings, society members, and traditions can have an impact on the future perception of death for an individual and their family as well.

An interesting analogy of mixing coffee and cream describes this collective and reciprocal influence. A merger of personal and social factors occurs, creating one substance, the elements of which affect each other (Thompson et al. 174). Thus, separate communities perceive death, dying, and bereavement through the influence of the social context.

One of the essential sides of death and dying is related rituals. According to Newman and Newman, the rituals should address three aspects, including the treatment of the physical body, the fate of the soul, and the emotional needs of survivors and society (596). Hence, death involves different rituals that sometimes carry a mysterious nature. Different cultures might possess different traditions following death and dying. It is believed that carrying out funeral rituals for the burial or cremation can offer “a prescribed set of practices” for the events when the survivors are under excessive stress for decision-making (Newman and Newman 596). In such a way, prior attendance at the funeral can prepare an individual to the same events happening with a loss of a loved one.

It is interesting to observe different examples of the traditions following death and dying among the cultures. Muslims wash the corpse in warm water with soap, and the adherents of Protestantism and Catholicism wash the body, embalm it, and dress in clothes chosen by family members (Newman and Newman 596). Native Americans make a substance from corn and cover the face of the dead one with it, and, in Jewish society, a special person or a funeral director cleanses the corpse (Newman and Newman 596).

One can see that different communities have diverse rituals for the treatment of the physical body, which can be determined by religion or old customs. Besides, the cultures also possess distinctive practices of the body’s disposal after death (Newman and Newman 596). It is possible to state that the social context determined by the religious beliefs or common traditions influences the way that corpse is treated and, consequently, the perception of death by individuals.

Moreover, death does not always represent the endpoint in one’s actions and influence that they can make. In various cultures, death can describe the change of status when an individual enters another stage and start to possess other abilities (Leming and Dickinson 295).

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Consequently, some religions believe in the afterlife and have diverse perceptions of this stage. It is suggested that those who passed away can “give advice, cure illness, rewards good deeds, and ensure a good harvest” (Leming and Dickinson 295). For example, at the funeral ceremony in Ireland, family and friends do not say goodbye to the dead one because they expect to hear from them again (Leming and Dickinson 295). Hence, death is not necessarily the ending stage of the lifespan, but, according to the beliefs of some cultures, is the beginning of a new phase.

Although the cultures differ in terms of death rituals and customs, the event represents a loss of a person, which can unite society members. Emile Durkheim viewed death-related rituals as “a powerful motor of social solidarity” (Brennan 24). In other words, in the face of loss, community members express support and unite to understand the concept of death and overcome the grief. Durkheim also believed that a wider social group helps an individual who experiences a loss to learn appropriate responses and reactions (Brennan 25). Again, it shows the effect that social context and community have on the sociology of death for a person influencing their emotions and often guiding the actions.

It is also crucial to look at the circumstances under which dying usually takes place and the emotions that people experience throughout this period. According to Leming and Dickinson, around 75% of deaths in the US “occur in institutional settings – primarily hospitals, yet also nursing homes” (39). In such a way, individuals die in impersonal surroundings, which can cause more negative emotions and perceptions about dying. One of the studies revealed that a high number of individuals stated they would prefer to die at home because dying in institutional settings creates a feeling of insignificance (Leming and Dickinson 39). It is possible to say that many families send their relatives to the hospitals seeking professional treatment, which, instead, creates a perception of isolation and unimportance among the dying.

Another challenging issue in the concept of death and dying is the shade of mystery after the event of death has occurred. According to Jupp, death “remains, and probably will always remain, the ultimate mystery” (vii). Different societies and religions hold various beliefs concerning the existence of the afterlife and what happens after a person is dead, in general. Still, no universal agreement exists that described what is beyond death because it represents an impossible challenge. Although communities that believe in the afterlife have established their opinions on what follows death, this issue remains to be a riddle for many others, imposing numerous questions about what is on the other side.

It is essential to mention that an understanding of death and dying among individuals involves a concept of a good death. A good death is “free from avoidable distress and suffering for the patient,” and others involved and is “consistent with clinical, cultural, and ethical standards” (Meier et al. 262). It is possible to say that this concept means acceptance of death and adoption of knowledge that one had a good life that is reasonably followed by death.

The definition and the introduction of a good death raised some critique with an argument that an external criterion does not have a place within this issue (Meier et al. 262). Death and dying is something that is perceived individually, and it is difficult to predict the emotions, opinions, and actions that an individual can experience. Even with a prior acceptance and a promise to perceive death and dying without distress, it is challenging to ensure that it will not change.

Still, the concept of a good death exists among the communities with individuals’ attempts to prepare for this event. In other words, a good death is referred to as a “well-managed death,” implying that technological and medical advancements help to prolong the dying process, giving more time for preparation (Cottrell and Duggleby 687). The advancements significantly improved infection control practices and introduced other medical procedures and methods that keep an individual alive.

It gives more time for family members and friends to accept the event of death and decrease the level of stress, which contributes to death management, resulting in a good death. This concept also serves as “a form of social control” in a way that it can provide a script for the dying and their families (Cottrell and Duggleby 688). Hence, a good death can shape specific behaviors and attitudes, which outlines the dying process and establishes the norms for all the parties involved.

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Education about death and dying and emotional aspects involved play a crucial role in the lives of individuals, their perception, emotions, and coping techniques. One of the studies revealed that death anxiety was significantly lower among the students who had death education in comparison to those who did not (McClatchey and King 343). Individuals who have knowledge about death and dying, and seek information about bereavement and its stages and how to overcome them, experience less stress in case of a loss. It is also critical to understand that death anxiety implies the amount of emotional distress and can lead to the fear of death and dying (McClatchey and King 343). Consequently, the communities need to offer education in this field to minimize the level of stress and decrease the likelihood of death phobia development.

Different sociological approaches concerning death and dying exist and seek to explain the concept in a social context. One of the paragraphs above mentioned Emile Durkheim, talking about social solidarity when individuals experience a loss. Emile Durkheim supported structural-functional theory, implying that “group behaviors provide strength to the individuals involved” and that death “is functional to the overall balance of a society” (Leming and Dickinson 27).

Another approach is the conflict theory that focuses on social imbalance and competition among the individuals and involves property distribution after death (Leming and Dickinson 28). Those two approaches emphasize different aspects of death, which explains the existence of different attitudes towards this event and shows that everything depends on the angle from which individuals view it.

Besides the approaches discussed above, there are also social exchange theory and symbolic interaction theory. According to the social exchange theory, individuals participate in such events as the funeral, expecting that they will derive the same behaviors if similar events occur in their lives (Leming and Dickinson 29). Thus, people act, assuming similar actions and responses from others. The symbolic interaction approach emphasizes that interaction between people happens according to “their understandings of the meanings of social situations” (Leming and Dickinson 30). It can influence the way an individual is going through the dying process.

For example, one can believe that healthy nutrition is necessary, which might extend life, although it would not help to avoid death. Hence, different social theories approach death and dying from various angles, focusing on different perceptions and behaviors.

One more aspect that requires careful consideration in death and dying are the ethical implications. Ethical issues concerning the end of life have different associations, including the decisions to limit the treatment, remove life support, or when an individual is requesting assisted suicide (Newman and Newman 595). The opinions about those matters differ in different communities, and the ethical principles can serve as a means to explain or contradict the decision.

The public opinion concerning a specific issue usually depends on the formulation of a question about the end of life (Newman and Newman 595). For instance, an individual in a hospice can refuse to have any food or water in an attempt to speed up a forthcoming death. This action will be viewed “as an expression of a dying person’s autonomy,” which is considered to be ethically right in contrast to the situation when someone is depriving an individual of food or fluids (Newman and Newman 595). Thus, the ethical side depends on the circumstances of the case.

The issue of ethical principles in the concept of death and dying involves the considerations of physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Palliative care provides different measures for pain and symptoms alleviation, which implies that the decision to request PAS “is not driven by intractable pain” (Al-Awamer 1039). Although it is believed that most of the patients seeking the PAS are in agonizing pain, the patients make this decision due to the emotions and fears that they will be dependent on others. Those who oppose PAS claim that its legalization can impose more pressure on older adults not to be a burden for their families and instead end life (B. M. Newman and P. R. Newman 596).

Another claim is that providing PAS will be closer to killing individuals if patients have mental disabilities or have in-born severe defects that represent substantial obstacles for their lives (Newman and Newman 596). Consequently, the issue of PAS involves numerous debates and ethical considerations, and it is challenging to view it from one perspective.

It is crucial to consider the emotions that those who are dying experience. People, who surround the patient, their family, friends, caregivers, can have a variety of emotions, among which the more significant part is negative due to grief. One research found that the real feelings of a dying individual are more positive than expected (“Emotions Expressed by the Dying” para. 1). One can claim that when a person who is not terminally sick thinks about death, they imagine fear and sadness.

The research’s findings represent other aspects, showing that death is not terrifying when one is already in the process of dying. According to Newman and Newman, generating an opinion about death is “a major developmental task during later adulthood” (589). Consequently, one should form an attitude towards death and dying, which can involve the fear of death. Based on the mentioned research, the established perspective about death can change when one is entering the dying stage and can evaluate emotions based on personal experience.

In conclusion, death and dying involve different emotions and perceptions from all the parties involved, including the dying person, their friends and family, and caregivers. Social context has a substantial influence on the attitudes and opinions about death. Different cultures have various rituals concerning death and vary in terms of traditions and beliefs about the existence of the afterlife. Several theories explain the perception of death among communities and represent that everything can be judged from a different perspective. It is crucial to form a point of view about death and be able to have a clear judgment about personal feelings when a dramatic loss is approaching.

References

Al-Awamer, Ahmed. “Physician-Assisted Suicide is Not a Failure of Palliative Care.” Canadian Family Physician, vol. 61, no. 12, 2015, pp. 1039-1040.

Brennan, Michael. “Emile Durkheim.” Handbook of the Sociology of Death, Grief, and Bereavement: A Guide to Theory and Practice, edited by Neil Thompson and Gerry R. Cox, Routledge, 2017, pp. 15-30.

Corr, Charles A., et al. Death & Dying, Life & Living. 8th ed., Cengage, 2019.

Cottrell, Laura, and Wendy Duggleby. “The “Good Death”: An Integrative Literature Review.” Palliative & Supportive Care, vol. 14, no. 6, 2016, pp. 686-712.

“Emotions Expressed by the Dying Are Unexpectedly Positive.” APS, 2017. Web.

Jupp, Peter C. Contemporary Issues in The Sociology of Death, Dying, and Disposal. Springer, 2016.

Leming, Michael R., and George E. Dickinson. Understanding Dying, Death, and Bereavement. 9th ed., Cengage, 2020.

Lewis, Ariane, et al. “Shouldn’t Dead Be Dead? The Search for a Uniform Definition of Death.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, vol. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 112-128.

Meier, Emily A., et al. “Defining a Good Death (Successful Dying): Literature Review and a Call for Research and Public Dialogue.” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, vol. 24, no. 4, 2016, pp. 261-271.

McClatchey, Irene Searles, and Steve King. “The Impact of Death Education on Fear of Death and Death Anxiety Among Human Services Students.” OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 71, no. 4, 2015, pp. 343-361.

Newman, Barbara M., and Philip R. Newman. Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. 13th ed., Cengage Learning, 2018.

Thompson, Neil, et al. “The Case for a Sociology of Dying, Death, and Bereavement.” Death Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2016, pp. 172-181.

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