Sociology of death

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Making of a death mask.

The sociology of death (sometimes known as sociology of death, dying and bereavement or death sociology) explores and examines the relationships between society and death.

These relationships can include religious, cultural, philosophical, family, to behavioural insights among many others.[1] It widens our understanding of death as more than clinical death, but a process combining social elements from the immediate needs of deathcare to wider social beliefes. Involving multiple disciplines, the sociology of deathcare can be seen as an interdisciplinary field of study across sociology and its sub-fields.[2]


The sociology of death can be defined as an interdisciplinary and relatively recent field of research concerned with the interactions of dying, death, and grief with society. It explores and examines both the micro to macro levels of interaction; from relationships of death upon individuals to its process across society.[3][4] The precise characterisation of the sociology of death is debated, but primarily revolves around the idea that death is a social construct. Experiences both as an audience and participant of dying and death, are highly shaped by social factors.[5]


19th century[edit]

The development of the sociology of death can be attributed, at least within a Western concept of sociology, with Harriet Martineau.[5] Martineau's work, reflecting on suicide, reaction from it by religion, to insights into national morals, through their book How to Observe Morals and Manners[6] (1838) helped establish a sociological methodology of death.[7][8]

Émile Durkheim, in his work Suicide[9] (1897) and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life[10] (1912), contributed to the sociological exploration and examination of death and its social impact; introducing sociological monographs, case studies, and statistical evidence to this field of study.[11]

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim outlines: 'when someone dies, the group to which he belongs feels itself lessened and, to react against this loss, it assembles. Collective sentiments are renewed which then lead men to seek one another and to assemble together'.[10] Here, evidence to the sociological nature of dying and death are considered.[citation needed]

To an extent Weber is also attributed to the creation of a sociology of death. In their work on Puritan beliefs and the development of capitalism they outline that death, although the end of an individual, can be seen as a crucial moment where the development of society takes place within.[12] Through rituals and belief systems, common collective agreement of what society should be is born. In the Puritan case study, Weber's work leans on the afterlife belief of predestination – a belief system that Weber outlined helped to establish capitalist society.[11]

20th century[edit]

Precursory work, as seen above, had created a prototype field of research for the sociology of death to grow out from. Further work in the 1960s[3] grew into a defined interdisciplinary field from the 1990s with great outputs of research and offerings of academic courses on sociologically related issues around death.[5]

Interdisciplinary nature[edit]

Funeral rites in India.

The sociology of death highlights distinct social considerations to explore aspects of dying, death, and grief that surround the emotional ending of human life. However, there are also cognitive, behavioural, and spiritual aspects to consider in the sociological examination of death.[9] The sociology of death has a distinct interdisciplinary nature that leans on closely associated fields of research with sociology.

Key intersections include anthropological, archeological, historical, psychological, to political to name a few.[13][14]


The overlap of the scientific study of death and sociology have produced areas of research focused on deathcare professionals,[15] near-death experiences,[16][17] to reducing pain and social suffering in dying.[18]

Research themes[edit]

Death taboo[edit]

A common theme of research into the sociology of death is the taboo or perceived social taboo that surrounds death. "Death denial" culture and interaction within society is both a heavily researched and critiqued area.[19][20]

Declining mortality[edit]

Throughout the world, mortality rates have steadily decreased decade upon decade[21][22] that has historically changed our meaning to death.[3] As age-related illness and diseases has become part of our lives, what makes a "good death" socially has altered along with advancements in medicine and technology.[23]

Dying vs. Bereaved[edit]

Challenging how death is perceived and examining dying from the perspective of those dying, rather than their carers and family.[24]


Western centricism[edit]

As a field of study, throughout course books to articles, a focus on Western societies has produced a Eurocentric and Western centric views of the sociology of death.[5][11]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lofland, Lyn H. (1975). "Toward a Sociology of Death and Dying: Editor's Introduction". Urban Life. 4 (3): 243–249. doi:10.1177/089124167500400301. ISSN 0098-3039. S2CID 145645862.
  2. ^ Van Brussel, Leen; Carpentier, Nico (2014). The social construction of death : interdisciplinary perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1137391919. OCLC 890435068.
  3. ^ a b c Riley, John W. (1983). "Dying and the Meanings of Death: Sociological Inquiries". Annual Review of Sociology. 9: 191–216. doi:10.1146/ ISSN 0360-0572. JSTOR 2946063.
  4. ^ Seale, Clive (1998). Constructing death : the sociology of dying and bereavement. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 051100267X. OCLC 47009903.
  5. ^ a b c d Puri, Jyoti (2021-09-01). "The Forgotten Lives of Sociology of Death: Remembering Du Bois, Martineau and Wells". The American Sociologist. 52 (3): 638–655. doi:10.1007/s12108-021-09511-2. ISSN 1936-4784. PMC 8405855. PMID 34483345.
  6. ^ Martineau, Harriet (1838). How to observe morals and manners (1 ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers (published 1988). ISBN 0887387519. OCLC 17841381.
  7. ^ Hill, Michael (1989). "Empiricism and Reason in Harriet Martineau's Sociology". Sociology Department, Faculty Publications. 451 (1).
  8. ^ Brancaccio, M. T.; Engstrom, E. J.; Lederer, D. (2013-03-01). "The Politics of Suicide: Historical Perspectives on Suicidology before Durkheim. An Introduction". Journal of Social History. 46 (3): 607–619. doi:10.1093/jsh/shs110. ISSN 0022-4529.
  9. ^ a b Thompson, Neil; Allan, June; Carverhill, Philip A.; Cox, Gerry R.; Davies, Betty; Doka, Kenneth; Granek, Leeat; Harris, Darcy; Ho, Andy; Klass, Dennis; Small, Neil (2016-03-15). "The case for a sociology of dying, death, and bereavement". Death Studies. 40 (3): 172–181. doi:10.1080/07481187.2015.1109377. hdl:10454/10065. ISSN 0748-1187. PMID 26745467. S2CID 42720126.
  10. ^ a b Durkheim, Emile (1915). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Cosman, Carol. Oxford: Oxford University Press (published 2001). p. 339. ISBN 978-0192832559.
  11. ^ a b c Walter, Tony (2008). "The Sociology of Death: The Sociology of Death". Sociology Compass. 2 (1): 317–336. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00069.x.
  12. ^ Weber, Max (1905). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit by Max Weber. Dover Publications Inc. (published 2003). ISBN 978-0486427034.
  13. ^ Kiong, Tong Chee; Schiller, Anne L. (1993). "The Anthropology of Death: A Preliminary Overview". Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science. 21 (2): 1–9. doi:10.1163/030382493X00080. ISSN 0303-8246. JSTOR 24491682.
  14. ^ Borgstrom, Erica; Ellis, Julie (2017-04-03). "Introduction: researching death, dying and bereavement". Mortality. 22 (2): 93–104. doi:10.1080/13576275.2017.1291600. ISSN 1357-6275. S2CID 55820127.
  15. ^ Sinclair, Shane (2011-02-08). "Impact of death and dying on the personal lives and practices of palliative and hospice care professionals". CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal. 183 (2): 180–187. doi:10.1503/cmaj.100511. ISSN 0820-3946. PMC 3033923. PMID 21135081.
  16. ^ Dam, Abhijit Kanti (2016). "Significance of End-of-life Dreams and Visions Experienced by the Terminally Ill in Rural and Urban India". Indian Journal of Palliative Care. 22 (2): 130–134. doi:10.4103/0973-1075.179600. ISSN 0973-1075. PMC 4843550. PMID 27162422.
  17. ^ Moody, Raymond A. (2013). "Getting Comfortable With Death & Near-Death Experiences: Near-Death Experiences: An Essay in Medicine & Philosophy". Missouri Medicine. 110 (5): 368–371. ISSN 0026-6620. PMC 6179873. PMID 24279183.
  18. ^ Patrick, Donald L.; Engelberg, Ruth A.; Curtis, J. Randall (2001-09-01). "Evaluating the Quality of Dying and Death". Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 22 (3): 717–726. doi:10.1016/S0885-3924(01)00333-5. ISSN 0885-3924. PMID 11532585.
  19. ^ Kellehear, A. (1984). "Are we a 'death-denying' society? a sociological review". Social Science & Medicine. 18 (9): 713–723. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(84)90094-7. ISSN 0277-9536. PMID 6729531.
  20. ^ Smith, Richard (2000-01-15). "A good death". BMJ: British Medical Journal. 320 (7228): 129–130. doi:10.1136/bmj.320.7228.129. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 1128725. PMID 10634711.
  21. ^ Vollset, Stein Emil; Goren, Emily; Yuan, Chun-Wei; Cao, Jackie; Smith, Amanda E.; Hsiao, Thomas; Bisignano, Catherine; Azhar, Gulrez S.; Castro, Emma; Chalek, Julian; Dolgert, Andrew J. (2020-10-17). "Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study". The Lancet. 396 (10258): 1285–1306. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30677-2. ISSN 0140-6736. PMC 7561721. PMID 32679112.
  22. ^ Gianino, Maria Michela; Lenzi, Jacopo; Fantini, Maria Pia; Ricciardi, Walter; Damiani, Gianfranco (2017). "Declining amenable mortality: a reflection of health care systems?". BMC Health Services Research. 17 (1): 735. doi:10.1186/s12913-017-2708-z. ISSN 1472-6963. PMC 5688697. PMID 29141632.
  23. ^ Hart, Bethne; Sainsbury, Peter; Short, Stephanie (1998). "Whose dying? A sociological critique of the 'good death'". Mortality. 3 (1): 65–77. doi:10.1080/713685884. ISSN 1357-6275.
  24. ^ Kellehear, Allan (1984-01-01). "The Sociology of Death and Dying: An Overview". Australian Social Work. 37 (3–4): 3–9. doi:10.1080/03124078408549804. ISSN 0312-407X.

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