What Is Thanatology?

A thanatologist studies various aspects of death and dying

'Morgue in hospital, low angle view'
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In This Article

Thanatology is the science and study of death and dying from multiple perspectives—medical, physical, psychological, spiritual, ethical, and more. Professionals in a wide range of disciplines use thanatology to inform their work, from doctors and coroners to hospice workers and grief counselors. There also are thanatology specialists who focus on a specific aspect of the dying process or work directly with people facing their own death or that of loved ones.

Concentrations

A wide variety of professionals incorporate thanatology into their work. How they do so depends on what they need to know about the dying process.

For example, a medical examiner, coroner, doctor, nurse, or other medical practitioner might study thanatology to better understand the physical process of death—what happens to the body during death as well as immediately after.

Social scientists such as psychologists, archaeologists, or cultural historians may study thanatology to learn about the rites, rituals, and ceremonies human beings employ to honor and remember loved ones from a cultural perspective.

Among the professionals for whom thanatology is the sole focus of their work are:

  • Psychological thanatologists—therapists and counselors who deal with people who are facing their own death or that of someone close to them, or who are grieving the death of a loved one.
  • Biological thanatologists often work in forensic sciences as coroners and medical examiners.
  • Medical ethicists use thanatology to support work on issues such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, both of which have legal implications.
  • Music thanatologists, who often are part of a palliative care team, may play the harp or use music at the bedside to bring comfort and calm to a dying person.
  • Pastoral thanatologists, who minister directly to people who are dying, have verified knowledge and skill sets related to the spiritual, social, and human behavior aspects of end-of-life care. They represent a range of religious/spiritual beliefs and affiliations.
  • Death doulas are non-medical professionals who provide emotional, psychological, and physical support to people at the end of life, as well as family members around them.

Subspecialties

The following specialties practice and use thanatology:

  • Archaeologists and sociologists
  • Clergy members
  • Coroners and medical examiners
  • Grief counselors
  • Hospice workers and death doulas
  • Doctors, nurses, and other caregivers
  • Funeral directors/embalmers
  • Philosophers and ethicists
  • Psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals

Training and Certification

Given the immense range of professions in which thanatology plays a role, there is no standardized course of study of thanatology. However, there are a number of colleges and universities that offer programs and certification in thanatology. In some universities, thanatology is an adjunct to other areas of study, such as theology or psychology.

People who wish to focus on a specific career that requires deep knowledge and understanding of certain aspects of thanatology also may receive training through accredited professional organizations. For example, the Association for Death Education and Counseling and the American Institute of Health Care Professionals offer certification programs in thanatology. The American Academy of Grief Counseling offers a full program for certification in pastoral thanatology.

Prerequisites for a certificate program usually include a high school diploma or equivalent. They typically fulfill 12 to 18 credits, and many are tailored to working professionals.

Advanced certificate programs generally require students to be licensed or certified healthcare workers with professional experience. Admission to a master's degree program in thanatology will require a bachelor's degree. 

Appointment Tips

If you or someone close to you is grappling with end-of-life issues, chances are you could benefit from the care and support of any number of thanatologists or other professionals whose work relies on having studied specific aspects of thanatology. How you go about finding the right people to meet your specific needs will depend on what those needs are. The palliative care department of a local hospital or other medical facility is a good place to start as are professional grief counseling organizations. If you're seeking spiritual care, a church or synagogue—whether you are a member or not—may also be able to refer you to a pastoral thanatologist.

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