This fall quarter, I’ve decided to continue my college courses through the online curriculum at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon. I needed a social science class to earn credit toward my AAOT degree and was excited when I saw SOC 232--a sociology course on death, dying, and bereavement. The text book for this class is the sixth edition of Death, Dying, and Bereavement by Michael R. Leming and George E. Dickinson.
I have assignments due each week in which I will be required to answer questions from the textbook and submit written posts to the online discussion board. Always looking for ways to make the best use of my time and knowledge, I like to repurpose any material I write and share it with others. Thus, as the class progresses, I’ll post excerpt of my assignments and share what I am learning on this intriguing subject.
While both are based on collecting data via observation and reasoning, there are two areas of study in which the topic of death and dying is approached by the social sciences: natural and social.
Natural sciences use a biological approach and social sciences use a sociological approach. The sociological approach also takes psychological and anthropological aspects into account and therefore leans somewhat toward the natural sciences.
The psychological approach looks at developmental life stages and attitudes from the cradle to the grave. This includes cultural differences and how the media desensitizes the masses regarding death denial.
The anthropological approach looks at the rituals people use to deal with death and celebrate life. It also assesses the emotional responses people have toward disposal of the body. A subfield ofanthropology uses bone identification, past and present human and animal remains to determine age, sex, and physical characteristics.
A sociological approach studies four theories: 1. structural-functional, 2. conflict theory, 3. social exchange, and 4. symbolic.
1. The structural-functional approach looks at the positive aspects and the balance in family, religion, economic, and political that death brings. All parts of society need to function well in order to keep things running smoothly.
2. The conflict theory focuses on the negative aspect and the inequality of the dying process i.e.: access to medical care for some. It deals with the lack of resources, imbalance, and things not going smoothly in society.
Both the structural-functional approach and the conflict theory studies funerals, relationships, returning to normal life after losing a loved one, body disposal, and funeral rituals in relation to social status i.e.: who and how many attend the funeral, where the service is held, and how property is distributed when the estate is settled.
3. Social exchange shows the social rewards and sacrifices people make to attend a funeral, the cost of burial, punishment for not attending or holding a service for the deceased. What does it cost to bury the body? Should the family have a celebration of life (party) and invite people to have a meal together and share memories of the deceased? What would such a celebration cost? Is it worth the perception of affluence it might give the family?
4. The symbolic approach addresses symbols as a component of human behavior. What will people think if I don’t go to the funeral service of my friend or loved one? This one drives home to me. I had a severe emotional reaction to a friend’s death two years ago. I was crying so much over his murder that I was unable to attend his funeral. I couldn’t keep my emotions calm enough to avoid embarrassing myself and upsetting his grieving family even more than they surely were.
I left for a pre-planned vacation out of the US while my grandmother (whom we call Nanny) was in the hospital. Per her request, I’ve agreed to play piano for her funeral when the time comes. I left, not knowing whether she would pass away while I was away or if she would get well enough to come home. Therefore, I drove five hours to see her before I left. That gave me peace of mind and the ability to enjoy my time off.
Chapter 2 of the text went into detail to show that defining the point at which death occurs is as impossible as defining when life begins--a very important part of a controversial book that I wrote and published in 2007 about embryonic stem cell research (http://right2recover.blogspot.com). There’s no way everyone is going to agree on one particular definition of when life starts or ends.
For more information, you might enjoy reading the complete book More Than Meets the Eye True Stories about Death, Dying, and Afterlife. Purchase on Amazon.com