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The science of thanatology studies various aspects of death. It looks at physical changes that precede death, as well as those that occur post-mortem. This field also examines psychological issues that accompany death and dying. The word itself is of Greek origin and comes from the personification of death in Greek mythology, Thanatos, and the suffix "logia", meaning "speaking." It is an academic program that is offered at a number of colleges and universities.
It was in 1903 that the Russian scientist, Elie Metchnikoff, began to call for scientific attention to the topic of death. It was his position that the comprehensive field of life sciences could not be complete without also examining the concept of death. He went on to argue further that it would be beneficial to those who were approaching death to understand what the process involves. It was his belief that a scientific discipline surrounding the study of death was essential to the benefit of humanity.
Prior to this time, it was common for medical programs to include cadavers in the academic preparation of physicians for the purpose of studying anatomy, but these studies did not include a focus on how to care for dying patients. However, Metchnikoff was unable to convince others in the scientific and medical communities.
It was after World War II, when so many around the world had experienced loss of loved ones, that people began to philosophize about death and its effects. An American psychologist, Herman Feifel, wrote a book entitled, "The Meaning of Death" in order to place emphasis on the role death plays in human behavior. Feifel's work laid the foundation for the field, and he is widely held a pioneer in the modern death movement.
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The study of death doesn't consider the philosophical aspects or meaning of life. It examines the psychology of individuals, their families, communities and cultures as it relates to the dying process.
Other fields of study are involved in this discipline, as well. The humanities have historically explored death through literature, song and other methods. While psychology focuses on the common fear of death, along with the emotions and behavior surrounding death, sociology examines the ways in which mortality is handled on a societal scale.
In order to understand the ways in which modern and historical cultures have dealt with the theme of dying, cultural anthropology and archaeology are employed. Biological aspects of study come into play when considering what happens to the body at the moment of death and afterward. Also in the biological sciences field comes the concept of medical ethics in which topics like euthanasia and living wills are given much consideration. There is even a discipline of the study which utilizes music as a means of assisting dying individuals and their families. Music vigils are meant to sooth the dying person, provide a feeling of calm that facilitates the easing of pain and offers a relaxing atmosphere.
The study of death and dying is examined with a wide lens and involves many fields of study. It is important to understand the emotional and physical aspects of death, as well as the individual, societal and cultural ramifications. That's why the field of thanatology is such an important and ever-evolving one.