Social Construction of Death


Presented by Prof. Chan Kin Man


Reference Books:


The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (NY: Fee Press, 1973)

Constructing Death: The Sociology of Dying and Bereavement by Clive Seale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Facing Death: Where Culture, Religion, and Medicine Meet edited by Howard M. Spiro, Mary G. McCrea Curnen & Le Palmer Wandel. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)

The Loneliness of the Dying by Robert Elias (NY: Continuum, 2001)
1.     Introduction Cemetery study at Yale


2.     Denial and Fear


Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (NY: Doubleday, 1997)


..the culture doesnt encourage you to think about such things until youre about to die. (p.64)

They cant wait to get it out of their sight.  People act as if death is contagious. (p. 172)


【西藏生死書】索甲仁 波切著 鄭振煌譯 (台北: 張老師, 1996)


在這兩種死亡態度中,一種 是把死亡當做避之唯恐不及的事,另一種則是把死亡當做自個兒會解決的事。兩者對於死亡真義的瞭解都何其錯誤啊! (P.21)


3.       The Death of the Body (Constructing Death: The Sociology of Dying and Bereavement)


a. Causes: a decline in infectious diseases (tuberculosis) and a rise in heart disease, cancer and strokes in modern societies. (p. 36)


b. Predictability of death and aware dying role cancer and AIDS


c. Social construction of pain (expression and experience) and different dimensions of pain (Saunders and Baines total pain includes physical, mental (feeling about dying and loss), social (distress about family relationships) and spiritual (feeling of cosmic meaninglessness where people have lost the capacity to feel that their suffering has any purpose). (p. 43)


d. Illness as metaphor: the experience of pain from cancer is worse in a culture that uses the disease as a metaphor for social evil. (See Sontag (1979)) This engenders fear and loathing, increasing the distress of pain.  


e. Women dying alone because women live longer than men, and tend to marry older men, they are more likely to experience widowhood, live alone, and eventually enter institutional care when unable to maintain themselves in private households. (p. 46) (See also Robert Elias, 2001)


4. Denial of Death and the Meaning of Death Awareness


a.       Social organization for death in late modernity is remarkably active, realistic and death accepting.  We must distinguish between the psychological denial of death (like the taboo of talking about death) and the sociological, which can be more accurately seen as a hiding away or sequestration of mortality in modern times. (p. 3)


b.       Parsons points out that in modern society there are active efforts to construct most deaths as natural by controlling premature death, resisting deliberately imposed death and relieving the physical suffering of dying. (p. 54)


c.             Death, nationalism and meaning of life ordinary people come to feel that their lives are a part of some greater whole, that will live on after their deaths, and for which it is worthwhile, and indeed heroic under certain circumstances, to die.  (p. 56)  ..indeed a transcendence of the basic human problem of being alone.  The guarantee of remembrance by those left behind is a further compensation for such a death, and memorials are duly constructed that show the living that this will occur. (p. 56)


d.             Secularization : Death of God and scientific representation of death (to locate the causes of death within the body).  Insurance systems help people live in a world without God. (p. 86)


e.               In late modernity, it is the psychological discourse that helps people, faced with the fateful moments of death and loss, to restructure narratives of self-identity and transform the event of death into a positive experience. (p. 3) the self can be understoodto be engaged in an heroic drama, involving the facing of inner danger, engagement in an arduous search, defiant displays of courage, and the demonstration of the virtues of compassion. (p. 92)