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Sociology of death and dying is the study of the ways that beliefs, behavior, and institutional arrangements concerning death are structured by social contexts. Although death is a universal human experience, societal responses to death vary according to cultural values, and contextual factors including the primary causes of death, and normative age at which death occurs.
Conceptualizations of and practices surrounding death in the USA have come full circle over the past two centuries. In the eighteenth century, death was public and visible. Death tended to occur at a young age, at home, and due to incurable infectious diseases. Survivors expressed their grief in dramatic ways, and made elaborate efforts to memorialize the dead. Throughout the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, death became ”invisible” (Aries 1981) and ”bureaucratized” (Blauner 1966). Physicians and hospitals assumed control over dying, death and mourning became private, funeral rites were transferred from private homes to funeral parlors, and people were encouraged to deny death and to believe in life-extending medical technologies.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, death is again becoming visible and managed by the dying and their families. Patients’ and care providers’ recognition that dying is often a socially isolated, physician-controlled experience has triggered several movements aimed at placing control of the dying process in the hands of patients and their families. The Patient Self-Determination Act, which encourages the use of living wills, was passed by Congress in 1990. The expanded use of palliative care at the end of life promotes pain management rather than life extension. As the experience of death has become more public and controlled by laypersons, sociological research on death and dying has flourished as well, culminating in a multi-volume Handbook of Death and Dying edited by C. D. Bryant (2003).
- Aries, P. (1981). The Hour of Our Death, trans. H. Weaver. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- Blauner, (1966) Death and social structure. Psychiatry 29: 378-94.