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Why death and dying?

Updated Tuesday 22nd September 2009

Although it's something we'll all experience, the idea of a course dedicated to death and dying might seem unusual. Dr Carol Komaromy explains why studying death is not so morbid

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Painting of Eve grieving over death of Abel Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

There are many reasons to be interested in Death and Dying. Statistics about death - death rates and the causes of death - provide a public way to measure how well a society is doing; so information about death tells the rest of the world about a nation’s health. Ceremonies and rites of passage to mark death are an inescapable feature of every society. Death is also an intensely private affair and one we all have to face at some point – both through the death of others and our own death.

The title, Death and Dying, covers a broad range of issues - from the meaning of life and what happens after death, to the care of dying people, grief and bereavement and the ethical dilemmas people face at the end of life.

The programme focused on just one area of this broad subject. You may have noted, when watching Richard Wilson’s exploration into what happens when people die, that death means many things to many people. Attitudes to death and dying vary both between individuals and within different groups in society. Within such a wide range of diverse attitudes to death it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions about the way particular societies view death.

Life and death are not separate entities and the quest to find meaning in one resonates in the other. This quest for meaning divides those who consider that fate is in the hands of a superior being and is predetermined, from those who believe that fate is of people’s own making. Where do you stand on this?

In faith terms, some major religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, assert that, ultimately, the human being is not dead, there has been no death, rather, there has been a passage from one form of life to another.

By contrast, the founder of the psychodynamic school of ideas, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), summarised his view of death as something that is unimaginable and unbearable and claimed that, at an unconscious level, we are all convinced we are immortal.

This psychodynamic explanation contrasted with that of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) who painted life as a continuous alternation between pain and boredom.

And the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) argued that there is no predetermined meaning to human existence, only that which people define for themselves. It follows, that, if life has no meaning, existence is arbitrary.

The views people hold at a personal level will contain elements of these and other aspects. The range of beliefs about life that people hold changes over time and individuals change their own beliefs – often as a result of personal experience.

Death and Dying is a fascinating and challenging subject. We hope you find the website helpful and interesting. Please take time to participate in the survey.

 

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