Modern Relationships with Death

Richard Kalish, among others, has pointed out a number of reasons for the interest in the study of death and dying. It is fairly easy to identify a number of factors that have increased concern about this topic. For example, more lives were lost in the twentieth century in warfare than in any other period of history. The presence of thermonuclear weapons continues to be a realistic concern for the peoples of the world. The increase in the number and influence of the elderly is also undoubtedly a factor. Most of the elderly die of heart disease, cancer, or other chronic illnesses in which dying takes place over a period of time. This has led to a different kind of acquaintance with death, in comparison to times not so long ago when death more commonly came as the result of a short acute illness.

Closely related to the previous point are the advances in medical technology which allow some people with chronic illnesses to be kept alive on lifesupport systems when their brains are no longer functioning. Because of such scientific advances, serious questions arise as to when death really occurs and as to what decisions ought to be made about that situation, legally, morally, and psychologically.

Undoubtedly, the impact of television has profoundly influenced society in its attitudes toward death and dying. For several decades, television has depicted death in both real-life and fictional situations. The effect of all this death on television (as well as in motion pictures) has yet to be studied or understood fully by psychologists or other social scientists.

A more sanguine reason for the increased interest in death and dying is that, perhaps, society is becoming more humane in its attempt to deal with these issues. There is a concern for "dying with dignity" and for a "good death" (the original meaning of the term "euthanasia"). The hospice movement has grown rapidly in the attempt to give the dying (particularly those dying from chronic illnesses) more choices about their dying and the opportunity to live out their final days in a way not so different from the way in which they lived the rest of their lives. Social scientists may be coming to realize that death has something important to teach humankind about human existence.

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