Thanatology is the science and study of death and dying from different points of view: medical, physical, psychological, spiritual, ethical and others. Professionals in a wide variety of fields use thanatology to communicate their work, from medical doctors and coroners to hospice workers and grief counselors. There are also thanatologists who focus on a specific aspect of the dying process or work directly with people facing their own death or the death of their loved ones.
Many professionals use thanatology in their work. How they do it depends on what they need to know about the dying process.
For example, a coroner, coroner, physician, nurse, or other physician may study thanatology to better understand the physical process of death – what happens to the body during and immediately after death.
Sociologists such as psychologists, archaeologists, or cultural historians can study thanatology to learn about the rites, rituals, and ceremonies that people use to honor and remember their loved ones culturally.
Among the professionals for whom thanatology is the only area of their work:
- Psychological thanatologists are therapists and counselors who work with people facing their own death or the death of someone close, or mourning the death of a loved one.
- Biological thanatologists often work in forensic medicine as forensic investigators and experts.
- Medical ethicists use thanatology to support work on issues such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, which have legal implications.
- Musical thanatologists, who are often part of a hospice group , may play the harp or use music at the bedside to calm and soothe the dying.
- Thanatologist pastors who serve the dying directly have proven knowledge and skills related to the spiritual, social, and behavioral aspects of caring for people at the end of life. They represent a variety of religious / spiritual beliefs and affiliations.
- Deadly doulas are non-medical professionals who provide emotional, psychological, and physical support to individuals at the end of life, as well as their families.
Thanatology is practiced and used by the following specialties:
- Archaeologists and sociologists
- Members of the clergy
- Coroners and Forensic Experts
- Mountain consultants
- Hospice workers and doulas of death
- Doctors, nurses and other caregivers
- Funeral Directors / Embalmers
- Philosophers and ethics
- Psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals.
Training and Certification
Given the wide range of professions in which thanatology plays an important role, there is no standardized course for the study of thanatology. However, there are several colleges and universities that offer programs and certifications in thanatology. In some universities, thanatology is complementary to other fields of study such as theology or psychology.
Individuals who wish to focus on a specific career that requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of certain aspects of thanatology can also receive training from accredited professional organizations. For example, the Death Education and Counseling Association and the American Institute of Health Professionals offer certificate programs in thanatology. The American Academy of Emergency Medicine offers a comprehensive certification program in Pastoral Thanatology.
Prerequisites for certification generally include a high school diploma or equivalent. They usually score between 12 and 18 points, and many of them are for active professionals.
Advanced certificate programs generally require students to be licensed or certified healthcare professionals with professional experience. A bachelor's degree is required to enroll in a master's program in thanatology.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with end-of-life issues, you can likely benefit from the care and support of various thanatologists or other professionals whose work is based on the study of specific aspects of thanatology. How you find the right people to meet your specific needs will depend on what those needs are. The hospice unit at your local hospital or other health care facility is a good place to start, as are professional grieving organizations. If you are looking for spiritual help, a church or synagogue, whether you are a member or not, you can also be referred to a pastoral thanatologist.