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Death Education

The death-related experiences of most Americans and people in other Western and industrialized societies in the early twenty-first century are markedly different from how people experienced death a century ago. At present, death is much more likely to take place in a medical facility under the control of well-trained strangers. In the past, death more commonly was an intimate family event and usually took place at home with family members caring for the dying person. Loved ones were most likely present when the individual passed, and young children witnessed the events surrounding the death. The loved one's body was washed by the family and prepared for burial. A local carpenter or perhaps even family members themselves constructed a coffin, and the body lay in state for viewing by family and friends in the parlor of the home. Children kept vigil with adults and sometimes slept in the room with the body. The body was later carried to the gravesite, which might be on the family's land or at a nearby cemetery. The local minister would be present to read Bible verses and say goodbye, and the coffin would be lowered and the grave covered, perhaps by relatives.

In the early 2000s, death has been sanitized and separated from everyday lives. It is likely to happen in a high-tech, multilayered bureaucratic hospital. The body is soon whisked away from view. It is carefully prepared for viewing and subsequent burial by professionals with an artistic flair, and placed in an elaborate and expensive casket. The body is then carried via a dazzling motor coach to the cemetery for internment in a carefully draped burial plot giving little hint that the loved one will actually end up in the earth.

The choreography of the modern death and burial process has become so elaborate that many people react in frustration and dismay and seek more simple, emotionally connected experiences of death. At the same time, the field of death education has grown as colleges and universities create courses on death and dying. These courses include both formal instruction dealing with dying, death, and grief, plus considerable time invested in talking about the participants' personal experiences with death. These developments can all be interpreted as parts of a movement toward bringing death back into people's lives, as a painful and puzzling event to be explored, experienced, and embraced rather than denied and avoided.


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John DeFrain

Alyssa DeFrain

Joanne Cacciatore-Garard

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Death - Defining Death, Bereavement, Grief, And Mourning, Why Must People Die?, Historical Perspectives