Keep death studies off the critical list

April 28, 2011

At a time when non-science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are campaigning against budgetary cuts, cross-disciplinary research risks being overlooked. Who owns and will champion it? As president of the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS), I am writing to express members' genuine concerns over the development of crucial death studies research.

Death studies fruitfully crosses many disciplinary boundaries and tackles matters no one can avoid. Yet the fear and ignorance surrounding death in Western societies can still deprive those facing the end of life. Death studies has begun to erode this fear and change attitudes so that all carers can respond to dying and bereaved people in helpful ways.

To foster the growth of a "big society", an understanding of dying and loss is crucial within families, neighbourhoods, leisure organisations and the workplace. Where health services are under pressure, the support we receive from one another during these challenging experiences is critical to individual and social well-being.

As an organisation, ASDS represents a range of non-STEM academic disciplines, as well as the UK's key practitioners who provide support for dying and bereaved people. Death is not a narrow medical or psychological matter. Everyone's chances of experiencing a "good death", and receiving help during bereavement, have been profoundly enhanced through research in the social sciences and humanities since the 1990s. Much of this research takes place within the hospice context and is at the vanguard of reforming end-of-life care.

Less visible but equally significant is that which informs improvements in loss and bereavement care - including memorialisation - and covers all types of death, including those caused by war and disasters.

With the major disciplines that contribute to this fundamental research now under serious financial threat, it is crucial that cross-disciplinary arenas such as death studies do not become marginalised.

Jenny Hockey, President of the Association for the Study of Death and Society, Department of sociological studies, University of Sheffield

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