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Death and Dying

Death Systems

Death systems (Kastenbaum 1998) are "the interpersonal, sociophysical and symbolic network, through which an individual's relationship to mortality is mediated by his or her society" (p. 59, emphasis in original). In one sense, we face death as individuals; in another, we face it as a part of a society and a culture. As indicated above, there is no single, consistent, cross-cultural view of death and how we are to respond to it. Death systems help the members of a particular group to know what death is and how to respond. A death system includes cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components and teaches the members of a group how to think, feel, and behave regarding death. Even when social groups share basic beliefs, such as religious beliefs, death systems will differ among groups, as Kathryn Braun and Rhea Nichols (1997) described in their study of four Asian-American cultures, and with groups over time, as Patricia Swift (1989) saw in the evolving death system of Zimbabwe.

At this funeral in China, attendants carry luggage that will accompany the dead person to the afterworld. Funerals and religious rites can help family members cope with death, and often reflect the family's death system—rules about how to think, feel, and act regarding death. KEREN SU/CORBIS

Although death systems are most clearly seen in large cultural groups, the family, with its unique shared past, present, and assumed future, also maintains a death system. Its assumptions about who can and should participate in such things as a death watch, who should attend a funeral, what they should wear, and how they should behave are all elements of a family's death system. The family, as an intimate system, acts as a filter for information from the broader culture. Beliefs about what death means, if there is an afterlife and what it is like, may come from the broader culture, but these beliefs are mediated by the family's death system.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsDeath and Dying - Death Systems, Family Relationships And Death, The Dying Process—moving Toward A Death, The Family After Death