Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: Sociology of Death and Dying

Sociology of Death and Dying

"I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather... Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car."

--Will Shriner, American Comedian 1953

When death happens, our lives get absorbed into the past, and for some, this is a terrifying thought. What is it about thinking of death that makes some of us go "crazy?" Humans (as far as we know) are the only animals that understand, on some level, the concept of death as well as the construct of time:

Why Should We Study Death and Dying?

Begin HERE, with this reading by sociologist Clifton Bryant. This will give you a feel for how the study of death and sociology fit together.

In 1983, John Riley Jr., a sociologist, wrote an interesting article on meanings of death. In Riley's article, he notes that one of the most "striking features of the social history of the past century" is the decline in mortality in the West. He also notes that three lines of sociological research have emerged:

  1. Literature on death and dying: this category includes dying as a process, attitudes toward the mortal impacts of social stressors like retirement and economic change, etc.
  2. Bereavement: Riley asserts that this area is confusing and deals with bereavement, grief, the meaning of loss, and touches on topics like "broken heart syndrome," widowhood, and anticipatory grief.
  3. Norms and social structures: here Riley states that the research has focused on norms and social structures found in all societies which have to deal with the concept of dying and the consequences of death.

Riley goes on to ask as many questions about death as we seem to still have today. He notes that there have been four influential theorists who have written about death in society:

  • Talcott Parsons, 1963: Parsons theorizes that medical advances and the predictability and control over death has given people in contemporary Western societies new meanings of death.
  • Robert Blauner, 1966: Blauner's research is focused on social organizations and norms found in all societies. He concentrates on ideas which are cultivated by the concept of death. For example, he asserts that corpses must be looked after, that being deceased is a new status in society, and so on.
  • Victor Marshall, 1980: Victor Marshall is interested in the social processes of dying and of aging. He also wants to better understand the changing meanings and the concepts of death and dying that develop via conversations with others in our lives. Marshall's work tends to be in the symbolic interactionist theoretical realm.
  • Renée Fox, 1980, 1981: Fox thinks that death serves as a rite of passage function for our contemporary society. Her work, similar to that of Parsons, also focuses on advances in medical technology and the consequences of those advances with regard to our understanding of how death happens and when death happens.

Perhaps the most important questions that Riley asks come at the very end of his article when he asks us a series of questions which seem to be just as relevant today as they were in 1983.

HERE is a presentation on Death Education, a field of academic inquiry called THANATOLOGY. The presentation explains the various reasons why it is important for us to study the concept of death and oulines the four dimensions of death education. /p>

How does Sociology Factor into Discussions of Death and Dying?

What is it that sociology brings to the table when we think about death? In a nutshell, sociological research tells us what our attitudes, experiences, beliefs and feelings are about. The essence of what sociologists do is centered on trying to describe social reality. And, many of us are quite skeptical of an afterlife--science relies on the essential "proof" that something IS. And, so far, we cannot prove that anything exists after death (this is one of the basic ideas which separates science from faith claims).

As a quick review, recall from your introductory sociology course that sociological thinking and writing follows the scientific process:

Scientific Process

And, we have a variety of methods at our disposal by which we do our research (the graphic above says that we "test with an experiment" but note that there are many different techniques and methods that we can and do choose to use in place of the traditional scientific experiment (for a deeper review of the major concepts of sociological research, visit my YouTube Channel (or review THIS LESSON). Note that the category of methods and techniques we use changes over time with advances in the concepts of scientific inquiry.

So, scientists--sociologists--go about their work trying to capture the essence of how society IS rather than how we think it should or could be. In order to do so, we have a variety of research methods available to us, and we conceptualize what we want to study by asking questions about (among many other things) attitudes, beliefs, feelings and experiences.

ATTITUDES: Attitudes can be formed from our pasts, our present and our futures, and are formed as either positive or negative evaluations. We choose our attitude about something, such as death, and in doing so, we evaluate how we feel about it. Sociologists use scales to measure attitudes, and they can be very difficult to measure precisely because they are arbitrary, meaning that they have to be measured against something else, for example: To measure attitudes about the concept death, we measure against the concept of life.

This may seem easy to some, but on further evaluation, we can see that there are quite a few problems with this type of measurement. What exactly does death mean? What exactly does life mean? Must we account for quality of life (or death) and what does that mean? We could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what each concept means. Therefore, when sociologists set about to research an attitude, it is very important that they operationalize the concept that they want to measure.


BELIEFS: Beliefs are about our worldview--what do we believe about something? Beliefs are ideas of a particular group or society and may consist of fables, stories, traditions, superstitions, and educational experiences that have influence on our ideas, emotions and values as well as our ATTITUDES. An example of a belief is a religious belief. Religion is steeped in tradition, and it helps to shape our attitudes (whether we are religious or not--understanding this helps you to see how a measurement of an attitude or belief is arbitrary--if you had nothing to measure how religious you are against, then how would you know how religious you are??). So, a belief can be a moral foundation by which you act or think.

FEELINGS: How you feel about something is directly influenced by your attitudes and beliefs as well as by past experiences. In the realm of thinking about death and dying, your feelings are likely directly related to experiences you've had in your life. Loved ones who die when we ourselves are children can have a profound impact on us and our feelings about our own deaths. Our beliefs (for example, our religious beliefs) help us to form feelings about death and dying, and help us to decide what our experiences may be when confronted with mortality. Feelings give us QUALITATIVE data, meaning that they describe us--they give a report on our sense of being.

EXPERIENCES: Moving toward the crux of symbolic interaction theory, experiences are framed and given meaning by individuals. Each of us experiences social reality differently from the next. We may not identify our experiences as different than another's (for example, the marriage of two people may be described by both in similar fashion, and both may think they had the same experience during the event), when in reality our experiences are likely vastly different than someone else's. Experiences influence the future, and they are also framed in context of our past experiences. The primary difference between experience and the other three constructs (attitude, belief and feeling) is that experience requires action. Something that we interact with gives us an experience. There are significant differences among people who have had a personally significant death event in their lives and for those whom death is a distant subject of discussion and inquiry--it is this experience that influences how we think and feel and what we believe about a concept.

All four of these concepts--attitude, belief, feeling and experience--are what sociologists try to measure. Some will argue that these measurements are impossible to take as society (and individuals) are constantly changing. Others will assert that it is very important for us to "get an handle" on concepts related to life, and therefore death.

Death as a Symbolic Construct

Symbolic construction is a term which describes a concept which has been framed within the context of our attitudes, beliefs, feelings and experiences. Death therefore is a concept which is always "under construction." Our meanings and definitions of death change over time (we will take a look at some of the change agents or mechanisms in the lesson on Images of Death). Take for example, the research of Michael Lessy, a researcher who stumbles upon a trove of photographs of death in small town America:

As a framework for our sociological understanding of death at the personal level, it is most useful to frame our thoughts within the MICRO level--use of Symbolic Interaction theory is practical when we are thinking about what the concepts of death and dying mean.

Defining Death

In contemporary America (as in the rest of the world as we continue to modernize), death is a difficult thing to define. As medical technology pushes forward, we must ask what death is:

  • When do we die? Is it when our hearts stop? When our lungs cease? When brain functions stop?
  • Who decides when death occurs? Doctors? Judges? Our Government? Religious Authorities?

The answers to these questions (and more) are debatable. Without delving too much into the medical and legal aspects of death, here is some information on the current thinking about when we die:

Dimensions of Death

In the US today, we use the Whole Brain approach most readily however there is still dissent among us about which approach is the "proper one." Religion, medicine, our government and individuals all have a stake in how death is defined. Perhaps the least problematic approach is individualized, whereby death is defined by individuals who determine which aspects are relevant for their own lives. This interpretation speaks to the very essence of the symbolic construct--meanings about things are directly related to our attitudes, beliefs, experiences and feelings. A "one size fits all" approach to the concept of death will continue to be problematic as we as individuals change based on the stimuli we are exposed to every day.


You can see that a superficial understanding of both sociology and the concept of death might leave you thinking that these notions are "easy" to figure out. But, the reality of things is that both sociology and the study of death from a sociological point of view are complex and challenging to think about. Our worldviews (beliefs and belief systems) as well as our measures of personal self-esteem help us to frame and cope with issues related to death and dying, and each of us responds in an intimate and personal way that is unique to the individual.

Sociology, at its best, allows us to pivot around issues and concerns, looking at things from many different perspectives and angles. This is why, in the field of sociology, we have several competing theories with which we work in our research. Each of these theories describes social reality differently--no one view is "right," and each view has strengths and weaknesses. Using all three allows us to have a better understanding of the world in which we live. Taking the same approach to the study of death and dying is essential--we must proceed with a "no one way is right" approach. Understanding facets of death and dying from many angles will allow us to see what society IS, not what we think it OUGHT to be.