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Death and Dying

Death Systems, Family Relationships And Death, The Dying Process—moving Toward A Death, The Family After Death

Death is something that all human beings can expect to experience. But just as there are variations in when life is seen to begin, so too are there variations in when death is seen to occur. In Western cultures, death is assumed to occur when a person irreversibly stops breathing, their heart stops, and there is no evidence of brain activity (Frederick 2001), but this definition is not necessarily held by other cultures.

Death is a social construction, which means that it is defined by using words, concepts, and ways of thinking available in the culture (Kastenbaum 1998). Because this meaning is socially constructed, death can mean different things to different people, and the meaning can change over time for each person. Marilyn Webb (1997) writes about the cultural mix that is the United States:

American families in fact have widely different views on such crucial issues as the nature of death, necessary rituals, expectations of an afterlife, whether folk medicines or faith healers need to be involved in the medical process, whether or not the patient should even be told of a poor prognosis whether the patient or the family should be the primary decision maker, and who in the family should make decisions. (p. 214–215)

When one looks around the world, one can see evidence of differences in interpretations of death and dying and appropriate behavior in their regard. Death may be seen differently in other cultures, with questions not just about when and how death occurs, but what death is. As an example, persons who would be considered unconscious by Western physicians, would be seen as dead by people living on Vanatinai, a small island near Papua New Guinea, leaving the possibility that they could die over and over (Lepowsky 1985). Clearly, there are social and cultural constraints that act upon beliefs, attitudes, standards, and behavior with regard to death and dying.

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