The word thanatology is of Greek origin. In mythology, Thanatos (death) was the son of Nyx (night) and Chronos (time) and was the twin brother of Hypnos (sleep). Ancient Greeks began to use thanatos as a generic word for death. In 1903, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov proposed two new areas of investigation, borrowing from the Greek gerontos and thanatos to coin the names gerontology and thanatology. However, unlike gerontology, thanatology did not gain broad acceptance as a science until the 1950s. An analysis of thanatology’s journey from its inception to its current status as an interdisciplinary science must include an evaluation of our relationship with death and how that relationship has changed over time. Although the science of thanatology is relatively new, death has always been a subject of interest to humans. The early philosophers and poets were perplexed by the very idea of death, as evidenced by Socrates’ discussions on the soul’s immortality and by the omnipresence of the theme of death in Seneca the Younger’s letters. However, the drastic transformations that modern society underwent in the last century have contributed to a social construct in which death has become a theme that is considered off-limits. The changes in how people think of and deal with death constituted one of the factors that triggered the thanatology movement. Dennis Morin (1951-2002) emphasized the relationship between the denial of death and the focus on individuality, which occurred simultaneously in the second half of the nineteenth-century, a period marked by the transition from a theocentric to an anthropocentric understanding of reality and life; it became evident that human beings considered themselves to be at the center of the universe and therefore could not conceive of their own finitude.
Throughout history, death on a grand scale has always compelled us to reflect on our own mortality, as illustrated by important works on death published during or after historical events involving wholesale death, such as Sigmund Freud’s ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915/1957), written and published during the First World War; Geoffrey Gorer’s ‘The Pornography of Death’ (1955), written a few years after the Second World War; and the many books and articles on the theme written immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, such as ‘Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence’ (2004) and the new chapter added to ‘Death, Society, and Human Experience’ (2004).
In recent decades, there has been a notable increase in the preoccupation with physical perfection and in the scientific impulse to explain and measure everything, as well as a considerable increase in life expectancy. However, our inability to cope with death grew in direct proportion to our capacity to postpone it. People want to live longer but want to remain youthful. Death began to be considered a failure, and the weakening of the body, a natural consequence of ageing, has been interpreted as imperfection. In this cultural atmosphere, the debates surrounding death have taken on greater importance. In this era of technological control over nature and human life, there is, more than ever, a need for the science of thanatology, a completely new area of study, the scope of which encompasses all of the encounters between life and death. Beginning at the end of the twentieth-century, thanatology turned the philosophical, poetic, and secular debate on death into a scientific field of study that touches on other realms of interest, such as philosophy, psychology, medicine, sociology, anthropology, nursing, bioethics, history, architecture, education, archeology, and law.
Although death has always puzzled humankind, the practice of thanatology, as an interdisciplinary science, gained acceptance only after the Second World War, in the historical context of the twentieth-century denial of death. The emergence of this science was closely linked to the moment in history and the human relationship with death at that time.
Over the course of history, the way in which we deal with death has changed significantly. Aries (1974) maintained that throughout human history, even if changes were subtle during certain periods of time, our attitude toward death has changed substantially from the Middle Ages to the present: the customs of the former evoked greater familiarity with death, whereas death is currently considered a frightening concept.
In earlier times, death was in evidence, underscored by the routine: death was an event that occurred at home, shared by the family and the community as a whole. According to Norbert Elias (1982-2001), what comforted the dying and their relatives was being able to share the experience with others. Therefore, in those times, death was not a lonely experience.
Religion plays a major role in the way in which we deal with death, by creating various death rituals and providing explanations that give believers the sense that they understand the meaning of death. In each religion, these rituals and teachings have undergone many changes over the years. In general, cultural frameworks guide individual attitudes and behaviours: different religions construct different representations of death, leading to different patterns of social interaction. Charles Robert Darwin’s work in the nineteenth-century marked a shift from a theological to a natural and biological approach. In the contemporary age, all religions are suffering, because scientific and technological advances have demonstrated that the world can be explained without reference to a god or gods and can be controlled without divine intervention (“God is dead” — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1896). One of the greatest changes was the transition between death being dealt with as a familial matter and the care of the dying being carried out by professionals. Near the end of the nineteenth-century, death began to be displaced from the home to the hospital.
Previously functioning as places of healing, hospitals began to have the secondary function of receiving the dying. In the hospitals, death lost much of its ritual and ceremony. Together with the changes in mentality and efforts to set the death event itself apart from social life, one of the causes of death becoming distanced from society was the displacement of cemeteries from interurban areas to areas on the outskirts of cities. Motivated by the hygienist ideas of the period, authorities decreed that cemeteries should be located far from populated areas, thereby imposing the need for hearses in order to transport the bodies of the deceased. In Western society, the structure of cemeteries is no longer influenced by religion, as it was in medieval Europe and in pre-modern Islamic societies, but is determined by public health concerns. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have extended lifespans by many years, not only postponing the event of death but also allowing individuals to ignore the very idea of it. The spread of the paradoxical “religious secularization” also changed our relationship with death. After the Industrial Revolution, death began to be viewed as the failure of the body machine.
According to Geoffrey Gorer (1955), by the middle of the nineteenth-century, death was being ignored and the concept itself was therefore in danger of becoming obsolete. As it became acceptable to discuss sexuality, death took its place as the forbidden subject. Prior to that time, all of the sciences, with the exception of anthropology, had overlooked the concept of death. When it became clear that there was a crisis involving our relationship with death and that all aspects of death were being neglected, researchers and educators were inspired to stimulate discussions on the topic and to promote death education.
At the apex of the crisis in our relationship with death, science began to be employed as a weapon in the battle against death. The concepts of health and death became dichotomous concepts, death being considered a sickness, as pathos. Within this context, growing old was correlated with physical malfunction and was equated with death. In recent times, this mentality has made it common to “treat” old age, for either health or aesthetic reasons, as if abolishing old age would allow us to live forever, or at least to live within that illusion. Many authors have stated that, in addition to the biological process, the psychosocial and cultural aspects of death should be taken into consideration. In many societies, social death follows the physical event, whereas, in Western society, this chronology is increasingly being inverted, social death often preceding the biological fact.
Throughout the scientific literature, the theme of death is being discussed, and the scientific community is making an effort to reintroduce the concept of death as a social reality. However, thanatology has often been practised in a manner that depicts death as being disconnected from life. The Japanese word for thanatology is Shiseigaku, which means the study of death and life. Death studies and reflections on death must integrate the concepts of life and death in order to reintegrate death into the social context, effectively redefining death and altering its symbolic significance in our complex Western society.