Why I ... believe people are becoming more interested in studying death

September 8, 2000

Judith Wester Postgraduate researcher Lancaster University

The study of death at an academic level has been taking place for more than 40 years, but is now emerging into a new subject area.

Women's studies emerged in a similar way. The study of death is a response to societal concerns about biomedical technology, just as women's studies grew out of a response to the women's movement and civil rights movement - women needed a voice. Courses in women's studies were offered in academic institutions before the topic began to be institutionalised, and it grew from there.

I have traced death studies back to the 1960s, looking at the variety of courses offered, when and where they were offered and what was happening at the time. Since the 1960s, the study of death within academia has been influenced by the green movement, the death awareness movement, the hospice movement, Aids, the cold war, biomedical advances and an increase in life education programmes at schools.

Our society now is disorganised when it comes to questions of life and death. Biomedical technology gave us the ability to transplant vital organs, extend life and perform safe abortions, creating new challenges with regard to how to make end-of-life medical decisions. Not only has the line between life and death become finer with each new biomedical breakthrough, it also grows more confusing.

Over-medicalisation and bureaucratisation of death has created a singular, personal, individual experience of death that often isolates those who are bereaved from the rest of society. We need education to help us deal with this. We already have death education in primary and secondary schools. If you are going to teach sex education, you have to introduce the topic of sexually transmitted diseases and then you have to discuss HIV, Aids and death. Courses on death are also taught at undergraduate and graduate level, as well as in medical and nursing schools. That is because an individual's personal suffering and loss extends politically, socially, economically and philosophically into the family, social network, workplace, community and society as a whole.

Each death creates eight or ten family mourners and one in three of those might experience a morbid outlook or pathological pattern. About 2 million people a year in the UK suffer from some form of complicated mourning as a result of a deep personal loss, which may result in health problems, financial losses, absenteeism, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and possible violence.

The study of death allows a student to examine death from a number of different perspectives in an objective way, so as not to become too emotionally involved in their own mortality or the mortality of those they love, yet still be deeply touched by the process of inquiry. Death studies then becomes an index, reflecting the changing attitudes toward death and dying within a society, and an agent for changing those attitudes through a reflective and objective examination of them.

Judith Wester will speak at the fifth International Conference on the Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal being held this weekend at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

* Interview by Harriet Swain

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