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What is Thanatology?

By Caitlin Kenney
Updated Feb 03, 2024
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Thanatology is the academic study of mortality or death. This subject encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including the sociology, biology, theology, psychology, economics, and literature surrounding death. Particularly, thanatology focuses on medical changes in the body during the process of dying and after death, deathbed visions, and the experience of grief in both closer and larger circles surrounding the deceased and ritual practices relating to death.

The word thanatology has ancient Greek roots. The suffix, -logy, comes from the ancient Greek term meaning "to speak," and now signifies "the study of." The root word, thana, comes from the Greek god Thanatos, the personification of death. This god was generally referred to as a negative, ruthless figure in Greek mythology. His name is also used in other words pertaining to death, such as euthanasia, the purposeful killing of a suffering person or animal, or thanatophobia, the fear of things related to death.

The creation of thanatology as an academic field of study is credited to Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff in the early 1900s. Famous for his work in microbiology and zoology, particularly for his discovery of phagocytosis, Metchnikoff also advocated for a scientific study of death. He argued that those who are dying have little or no scientific resources on the experience. He hoped that an academic study of death would help those facing it, either personally or a loved one, to not fear death.

While thanatology remained a relatively unstudied subject for years after the death of Metchnikoff in 1916, interest was renewed after World War II, which had left many people grappling with death and grief. The work of American psychologist and influential thanatologist Herman Feifel is often attributed to his experience in World War II, especially the horrors of the atomic bomb. Feifel went on to publish works, such as his book The Meaning of Death in 1959, which brought the field of thanatology into mainstream view. His publications especially focused on coping with life-threatening illnesses, conscious and subconscious attitudes towards death, and fear of death. Like Metchnikoff, Feifel argued that more research needed to be conducted to help those dealing with anxiety, fear, or grief in the dying process.

Today, thanatology may be pursued at a university level at several colleges worldwide. The curriculum is likely to include substantial studies in medicine, examining the physiological changes in the body before and after death, the role of prescription drugs in the process of dying, the psychiatry of dying or watching someone die, and the controversial subject of euthanasia. Other courses might focus on cultural relationships with death throughout history, causes of death throughout history, components of religion and mythology that concern death, and various other areas of research. A degree or certificate program in thanatology prepares students to work as grief counselors, grief therapists, or death educators.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On May 16, 2014

Grief counseling has come a long way since thanatology has come more to the front, along with modern therapy techniques.

There are many people who would have benefited from grief counseling years ago, but didn't get it, because it wasn't available, or if it was, going to a therapist meant you were "crazy."

My mother is 85 and things she has repressed for years are coming out. Therapy would have been such a blessing for her many years ago.

By Grivusangel — On May 15, 2014

I thought this must be the study of death since William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis" also deals with the subject.

I think people in the West used to be more accustomed to death than they are now. People didn't live as long, children died more frequently, and there weren't as many cures for common illnesses.

Because of this, death hits harder than it used to, so I can see a use for studying it, especially with the aim of helping those who are grieving. Of course, many years ago, it wasn't nearly as acceptable to fall apart when a loved one died. People did it, of course, but they were often viewed as weak or somehow lesser-than because they didn't simply buck up and go on as though nothing had happened.

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