PSYC 3570 Unit 1 Chapter 2
Ideas About The Nature And Meaning Of Death
• Life and death can be regarded differently by different people, or can mean different things to the
same person at different times
• What we mean by death becomes of practical importance when we communicate with others with
a different conception
• Many survivors of near death experiences have reported an enduring change in their conceptions
of death and life
• Feeling dead is an exhausting way to go through life but can also be a way of protecting the self
and giving it another chance
• Gunther Von Hagen: plasticizing dead bodies, removing the association between death and decay
o Plastination: replaces fluids and lipids in the biological tissues
o Hagen’s objective is to respect the human body in life and death, “Plastination reveals the
beauty beneath the skin frozen in time between death and decay
Death as Observed, Proclaimed and Imagined
• Mary Shelly: came of age in the time of galvanic (electrical) experiments, doctors were acquiring
corpses that had been stolen or murdered, reports were circulating about people being buried
alive. These events led Shelly to the conclusion that maybe the dead could be reanimated, maybe
death is not permanent and irreversible. Prometheus: stole fire from the gods to give to humans,
Shelly knew of his punishment.
• Frankenstein’s creation ended up profoundly flawed. With the introduction of Frankenstein and
Dracula attitudes towards the dead became more complex
• Thanatomimesis: Darwin’s term for the simulation of death often to avoid being killed (Darwin
first observed this in spiders, it is also used in children’s play to master death related anxiety).
The dead can be only apparently dead.
• Kenneth V. Iserson: discusses death not as a sudden and massive event but rather as a complex
process over time. Even as the death certificate is signed there may still be biological activities
• Islam (and Dr. Bakr Abu Zaid): death is only certain once the soul has left the body
• Epicurus: the universe comprises atoms in motion and that our own actions are shaped by the
pattern of past events. Death is nothing but one event in a sequence of events with no intrinsic
meaning or value. We just happen to be here. He developed a community (The Garden) where
people from all backgrounds and races could live together in harmony and equality.
• Most prefer a version of the universe as rule abiding and purposeful (not Epicurus’s theory)
• Christianity ties lust to death. Life is regenerated through death (sacrifices). Sexuality is a sin and
carries the death penalty.
• In early era suicide and martyrdom were considered better options than sexual indulgence
• Deathification of sex and the sexualisation of death
• Paul the Convert: union with god is the dominant theme, sexual union between humans is seen as
less spiritual and worthy
• New Age Movement: death is a change of clothes, life is a journey through multiple lives, death
is a transformation and life and death are purposeful. Death is not seen as a punishment for
sexuality or anything else. Life and death of the spirit are not seen as byproducts of brain activity
similar to Islam.
Death as a Symbolic Construction
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• Death has many referents associations and consequences
• Dead and death are concepts that are still under construction
• Symbolic constructions of death can lead us to increased or reduces interactions
• Most influential constructions come from the movies/tv
• Most deaths presented in sensational and violent manners, seldom actually shown the real course
• Films that won awards were more likely to have shown sorrow and sadness in response to death
• Male character 6x more likely to instigate death, females 2x more likely to be the victim
• Death is social disconnection and social abandonment
• Meaning of death to the individual seldom a central issue
• Takes a while for children to understand death as not intentional or accidental and something that
will befall everyone (this understanding is not assisted by the media)
Biomedical Approaches to the Definition of Death
• Death is certified by physician meeting society’s need for verifying that a member is lost. The
survivors are now expected to start reorganizing their lives around the fact of this loss, while
society makes its arrangements. Insurance benefits are to be paid, the deceased will not be
eligible to vote at the next election, and this unique death will become part of mortality statistics.
Traditional Determination of Death
• The most common signs of death have been lack of respiration, pulse, and heartbeat, as well as
failure to respond to stimuli such as light, movement, and pain. Lowered body temperature and
stiffness are also expected to appear, followed later by bloating and signs of decomposition.
• In past no need for technology, but errors were made. For example: victims of drowning and
lightning, for example, would sometimes be taken for dead, when in fact their vital functions had
only been suspended.
• Jack Kevorkian: believed the condition of the eye was the most reliable basis for determining
death and if the patient was dead, the condition of the eye could tell how long.
• Status of the eye at death:
1. Segmentation and interruption of blood circulation
2. A haziness of the cornea
3. Appearance of homogeneity and paleness
• Although Kevorkian urged other physicians to use this method, few did.
Ways of Being Dead
• Medical advances have made it possible to maintain the body of a nonresponsive person for an
indefinite amount to time
• Hard to place nonresponsive person in the category of dead or alive, even though eventually a
decision will have to be made
Brain Death and the Harvard Criteria
• 1950’s some unresponsive patients were beyond coma as there were no electrophysiological
activities detected from the brain, examinations revealed extensive destruction of brain tissue.
• Respirator Brain: patients have extensive destruction of brain tissue but have been connected to
2 PSYC 3570 Unit 1 Chapter 2
• Redefining dead: heart may be beating but the patient may be dead enough to be considered an
• Harvard issued an opinion, which served as the guide for determining brain death, the first three
criteria are traditional approaches, and the last two utilize technological advances
The Harvard Criteria
1. Unreceptive and unresponsive: no awareness for external stimuli, painful stimuli or internal need
2. No movement or no spontaneous respiration or other spontaneous movement
3. No reflexes
4. Flat EEG
5. No circulation to or within the brain
• Generally the first three serve the purpose, EEG is only used when there is still a question of life
• Tests of brain functioning should be repeated 24hrs later if the traditional criteria is not met and
the EEG criteria needs to be used.
The Current Scene
• 1981: brain death became official diagnostic criteria: irreversible known damage has permanently
destroyed all functional brain activity including the brain stems ability to induce spontaneous
• Possibility that brain functioning is on hold must be ruled out, condition must not be caused by
hypothermia, drugs, metabolic or endocrine disturbances
• Approach gives benefit of the doubt to recovery
• Some argue that permanent loss of functioning in cerebral cortex should be enough to diagnose
• However it is destruction to the cerebral cortex and brain stem that are required to be classified as
brain dead (whole brain death)
• There are several of conditions that could be mistaken for brain death, all different but all can
give the impression of terminal nonresponsiveness
• Physician must find behavioural clues to determine the patient’s state
Total Brain Failure: An Emerging Concept
• Total brain failure:
o Excludes the word death because the condition should be verified not assumed
o Questions the assumption that whole brain death patient is a mere group of artificially
o Coordinated activities of bodily functioning can continue because the brain is not the
o Studies shown certain areas of the brain may be intact even if the failure seems total
o Focus is no longer on physical symptoms but reminds us that even severely impaired
continue to interact with the world and fight for survival
Event Vs. State
• Death is sometimes treated as an event (something that occurs in a specific way and at a specific
time and place) or it can be viewed as a state.
What Does Death Mean?
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• Meanings that have been given to death:
1. An enfeebled form of life.
2. Continuation of life.
3. Perpetual development.
6. Cycling and recycling.
7. Virtual, therefore, not really death after all.
Interpretations Of The Death State
• Kids think of death as a less vigorous form of life (dead are tired, sad or bored).
• This belief system was common to Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.
• Deceased is gradually absorbed into the underworld where they become a frightening creature.
• The dead all become equal in this state.
• The decremental model ruled through out much of the ancient world. Abandonment, depletion
and endless misery were the lot of all mortals (with the exception of mighty rulers).
• Death is going on with life as usual including the possibility of a final annihilation.
• Dayak of Borneo: soul returns to earth on the 7 day and enters a fruit near the village, invades
the body of whomever eats the fruit and the soul lives on (could be eaten by animal or human).
• The universe is not completely determined.
• Alexander and Morgan suggested that evolution applies to the universe as a whole, life is an
emergent quality from a transforming universe. God is still being created. The relationship
between life and death also continues to evolve
• Gustav Theodor Fechner: Hindu influenced model death is the birth into a freer mode of
existence in which continued spiritual growth occurs. Death differs by the stage they are in
• Evolutionary Biologists: future state of a system cannot be predicted from knowledge of its
starting state. Change is real.
• Western society has three phases of waiting suspension, judgement and disposition
• Suspension: transitional phase between end of earth life and entry into new realms
• Judgement: day arrives people take their respective places (salvation or damnation) for eternity.
• Some Christians focus on long waiting period other contemplate ultimate phase
• Waiting emphasizes time tension