Bioethics Blogs

Raging Against the Dying of the Light

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

When do we die? The legal and medical answer is we are dead when we either (a) have experienced total loss of all brain function or (b) cessation of cardiopulmonary activity. The biological answer is that we are dead when as an organism we have lost our ability for integrated function—that is enough parts have ceased to function that the organism cannot be put back together again. That moment we call “death” is in a real way, quite arbitrary. It takes much longer for our tissues and cells to die once the integrity is lost.

I am in the second half of the academic quarter, teaching a course on Death & Dying. Students have learned the causes of death, diagnosing death, the biological process of bodily decay, autopsy, the “life” of cadavers as well as about advance directives, hospice and palliative care, funerals, grief and mourning, and cross-cultural perspectives on all of this. Perhaps the most interesting idea that I have learned is that death and dying are two distinct things.

Yes, death is all about the biology and the medicine. But dying is about the social process of preparing to leave this world and enter some other one (whether real or imagined). In The Social History of Dying, Allan Kellehear, sociologist, presents the relationship between death and dying throughout human history. He begins with the Stone Age where death was common at all ages. Most of the rituals about death happened after a person had died. Dying practices centered on making sure that the soul traveled to the afterlife, a journey that required assistance from the living.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.