Sociology of Death

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“It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.” There is no controlling it; death will come when it will. A wise statement by Epicurus but nonetheless, not entirely true in the present climate. Western civilization is unceasing in its desire to master that which nature has designed to be unconquerable, as evidenced by the rapid advancements that technology and medicine have made. If one values human life, after all, it is imperative to do all that one can to preserve it. For others, however, it is nonsensical to stretch the limits of the Homo sapiens species further than is possible through artificial means. How is it that two human societies can have such different views of the same concept? Interpretations of death vary greatly in societies all around the world. The variations in how societies view and treat death can be linked to the influences of technology, religion and the media as agents of socialization. Technology in society is an important agent that guides individuals in developing their views toward death and dying. For example, as technology developed, Western societies experienced mass urbanization. While 80% of Americans lived in rural agricultural areas at the start of the Civil War, that number is now down to 20%. As society moved away from nature, consequently death began to seem farther away. No longer did children grow up seeing exactly where meat came from- the entire concept became increasingly sequestered and foreign. Unlike tribes such as the Suri in Ethiopia that live in a hostile environment where they are faced with blood, pain and death every day, Westerners live in relative comfort, and rarely does one’s mortality stare one in the face. This started to guide America and other such countries into becoming what are known as “death-denying societies”. With the medical institution growing increasingly more sophisticated in its methods, denying “premature” death and lengthening life has become the norm. To many it seems, with enough money and treatment, death can be postponed almost indefinitely. From 1900 to 2008, the life expectancy of Americans has gone from 47 years to 78 years. A common misconception is that this is all due to medicine when in fact most of this improvement came between 1900 and 1950, when simple measures such as improving sanitation and nutrition were taken. Not knowing this, many Americans thus have unreasonable expectations of the capacity of a physician to keep a patient alive. A patient death is considered to be a failure on the part of medicine as opposed to the natural course of nature. That is why relatives and physicians alike tend to push for as many treatments as possible, sometimes for little more than being able to say “We did all we could” and assuage the guilt. Other societies, like Hindu tribes for example, perceive the entire concept of death and dying very differently. For them, death is not so much a failure of an institution but a natural course of life that will bring an individual one step closer to being released from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. By modern standards, the level of technological development in these regions is low. These societies live in and embrace the natural world which modern society has distanced itself far from. Mother Nature is worshipped by the Hindus- the concepts of nature and Hinduism are so intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. They have a very great respect for nature and its power to give life and take it away, while many Western societies look upon nature as something that can be denied or at least held off with the power of technology. Therefore, technology- or lack thereof- has a strong influence as an agent in socializing a society’s views toward death. Another force that shapes how individuals perceive death and dying is religion. Tribal and traditional societies tend to be more religious than modern secular...
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