Thanatology (Forensic Science)
The term “thanatology” derives from the Greek word for death, thanatos. Thanatology explores how questions about the meaning of life and death affect the dying and their loved ones, recognizing that these questions are relevant to the psychological health of individuals, families, communities, and cultures. Because death is such a broad and complex subject, thanatology relies on holistic knowledge and practice.
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Evolution of Thanatology (Forensic Science)
During the mid-twentieth century, many Americans considered death a taboo topic, to the extent that death was an unacceptable topic for scholarly research, public education, or public discussion. Eventually, however, this attitude was challenged by the initiatives of a number of pioneers, including Cicely Saunders, William Lamers, and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In 1967, Saunders founded St. Christopher’s Hospice in London, England; St. Christopher’s is often credited as being the first hospice. Saunders emphasized that dying is not simply a biomedical or physical event; it also has psychosocial, familial, and spiritual implications. At St. Christopher’s, she tried to create a homelike, family-centered atmosphere that would allow dying persons to live life fully, free from debilitating pain and incapacitating symptoms. In 1974, Lamers founded a hospice in Marin County, California, that viewed home care as the model of hospice treatment and stressed psychosocial care and the use of volunteers.
The hospice movement is based on the recognition that the dying process is part of the normal process of living, and hospice care focuses on enhancing the quality of remaining life. From their beginnings in the mid-1960’s, hospice programs expanded quickly; within forty years, more than eight thousand hospices were in operation all around the world. Both the hospice philosophy and the growth of hospices improved the...
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Issues and Resources (Forensic Science)
Technological advances have raised many issues surrounding death, such as how long people live, when they know that they are dying, and where they typically die. Among the end-of-life decisions that dying persons and their family members often face are decisions regarding advance care plans, life-support options, giving and receiving communications about the dying person’s medical condition, and who will make health care decisions when the dying person is no longer able to do so. In addition, dying persons and their families may discuss the topics of autopsy, organ donation, and euthanasia. Within a diverse society, culturally meaningful thanatology practice requires a commitment to personal and professional assessment in response to the challenges presented by cultural differences in death, dying, and bereavement.
One resource in the field of thanatology is the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), one of the oldest interdisciplinary professional organizations for persons who work with the dying. Dedicated to promoting excellence in death education, care of the dying, grief counseling, and research in thanatology, ADEC provides information, support, and resources to its multicultural, multidisciplinary membership and, through its members, to the public. ADEC has a two-level program in which individuals can become certified in thanatology or fellows in thanatology. Certification status indicates that a...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Balk, David, ed. Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement. New York: Routledge, 2007. Comprehensive text presents wide-ranging discussion of death-related issues. Includes sections on dying, end-of-life decision making, loss, traumatic death, and death education.
Becvar, Dorothy S. In the Presence of Grief: Helping Family Members Resolve Death, Dying, and Bereavement Issues. New York: Guilford Press, 2001. Provides a detailed portrait of death through case studies and personal stories of grief and struggle.
Corr, Charles A., Clyde M. Nabe, and Donna M. Corr. Death and Dying, Life and Living. 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2006. Thorough text covers all aspects of death and dying, including chapters on developmental issues, legal concerns, and challenges of the twenty-first century.
DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, and Albert Lee Strickland. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Highlights the main issues in thanatology in a comprehensive and readable way.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. 1969. Reprint. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. Classic work focuses on the lessons that the dying can teach their doctors, nurses, and clergy, as well as their own family members.
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Thanatology (World of Forensic Science)
Thanatology is the science that studies the events surrounding death, as well as the social, legal, and psychological aspects of death. The term thanatology originates from the Greek thanatos, meaning death and logos, for study or discourse. Thanatologists may study the cause of deaths, legal implications of death such as the rights and destiny of the remains or requirements for autopsy, and social aspects surrounding death. Grief, customs surrounding burial and remembrance, and other social attitudes about death are frequent subjects of interest for thanatologists.
From the forensic point of view, causes of death may be due to natural causes, such as from lethal disease or advanced age), accidental causes, such as falls, plain crashes, fires, drowning, or automobile accidents, criminal actions, such as murder, neglect, malpractice, or other irresponsible acts by third parties, and finally, suicide. Thanatology also overlaps forensics when it focuses on the changes that occur in the body in the period near death and afterwards.
Some social issues explored by thanatologists, such as euthanasia (the merciful induction of death to stop suffering) and abortion (termination of a pregnancy) are subject to much ethical and legal controversy. These issues are legal in some countries, while considered a crime in other countries. In Brazil, for instance, although outright euthanasia is illegal, patients have the right to refuse medical treatment and artificial life supporting procedures, if they sign a legal statement in advance while of sound mind.
Rights over the corpse of the deceased is also determined by law in most developed countries, as well as burial, cremation, and embalming requirements. Clinical autopsies are generally required in cases of unexplained or violent death, suspicion of suicide, drug overdose, or when requested by the family of the deceased due to suspicion of medical error or when confirmation of certain diseases is sought.
The thanatology community is usually composed of a variety of health professionals including psychiatrists and other physicians such as forensic pathologists, advanced practice nurses, and veterinarians, along with sociologists and psychologists.
SEE ALSO Assassination; Autopsy; Body marks; Coroner; Death, cause of; Death, mechanism of; Decomposition; Drowning (signs of); Entomology; Ethical issues; Exhumation; Fluids; Medical examiner; Parasitology; Pathogens; Pathology; Saliva; Semen and sperm; Serology; Skeletal analysis; Time of death; Toxicology.