Thanatology is the study of death, dying, and the means by which human beings cope with death. The word itself is derived from the Greek word thanatos, meaning “death.” Today, thanatology mostly involves a forensic approach to death mechanisms as well as psychological aspects of the grieving process. While the study of death might seem an odd topic, it is an important part of understanding biology and medicine. Thanatology is also cited in debates over topics such as assisted suicide, abortion, and organ transplants.
Thanatology did not exist as a semi-formal discipline until after World War II. Psychologists, scientists, and philosophers struggling to grasp the enormous death tolls of the war began to organize their thoughts into a more structured study. This endeavor eventually grew into modern thanatology, focusing primarily on biological mechanisms of death and psychological effects on the dying and their survivors.
The oft-cited Kubler-Ross model, commonly known as the “five stages of grief,” is related to thanatology in that it was initially meant to refer to how human beings respond to a terminal diagnosis. This cycle of “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” is not necessarily accepted as accurate by all modern thanatologists, but it is probably the most well-known product of thanatology in popular culture.
Modern universities may offer specific credentials in thanatology, mostly emphasizing grief counseling and bereavement.
Not surprisingly, the Bible touches on the psychological aspects of grief and dying. The book of Job is practically a how-not-to guide for counseling a bereaved person, as Job’s friends constantly insist that the calamity that befell him is entirely his fault. Jesus demonstrates His sensitivity to human grief at the tomb of Lazarus, where He weeps despite knowing He’s about to raise the man back to life (John 11:34–36). Scripture also mentions the need to carefully counsel those who are mourning (2 Corinthians 2:5–8). It references fasting as a means of expressing grief (1 Chronicles 10:11–12; 2 Samuel 1:11–12). These are only a few examples of the many times Scripture deals with the human response to death and suffering.
Much of the Bible’s message about death is one of comfort (Matthew 5:4). The Christian perspective on thanatology is unique in that Christianity offers hope of restored relationships after death. According to the Bible, suffering is not necessarily our own fault (John 9:1–3), but it can always turn out for the good, according to God’s plans (Romans 8:28). The greatest comfort Christ offers to the dying or bereaved is the hope of heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13) and the knowledge that what happens is overseen by a compassionate God (Matthew 10:29–31).