When facing the death of close people, it is natural that one can express such feelings as grief. When it comes to the concept of death associated with the notion of mortality, people express such feelings as anxiety and fear. In a socio-cultural context, death has always been associated with moral, religious, and ethical concerns because of representing dying as a ritual of the person leaving “this world”. From a medical point of view, the death of a human body signifies the cessation of functioning of all human organs (Lella & Pawluch 1988).
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Despite these different ways of treating death, the medical sphere acknowledges the linkage of scientific and humanistic visions on a dying person because they can be applied to patient care as well (Jesani 2004). At the same time, there is no such thing as death with dignity because it relies on a social construct of perceiving the human body and, as a result, the concept of the dignified and undignified should be considered with regard to objectified perceptions. At this point, biomedical, technocratic, and humanistic conceptions should be considered in more detail to understand the issue.
From a cultural and historical perspective, the image of human dying and death is often associated with tradition and ritual because a dead person was often associated with the specific values, emotions, and experiences (Moller 1990). A human body, therefore, is a socialized object. Perceiving death as a social construct arises specific images, contexts, and values preventing medical professionals from treating cadavers from a scientific point of view.
However, in the absence of rituals and social context, death is nothing more than a physiological condition of a human body. According to Armstrong & Blute (2010), “the philosophy of science for long remained curiously immune to this “scientific” of what was once exclusively philosophical topics” (p. 432). As a result, the concept of death is stereotypically perceived as an inherent part of the sociological theory of the human body. A close correlation between the philosophy of sciences has had a potent impact on the development of science as a part of sociological studies considering the body attributed to such concepts as the self.
The false perception of the concept of death attached to dignity largely correlates with historical evidence, highlighting the rigorous opposition to the anatomy as a science. Synthesis of social and religious concepts in the 19th century created a rigid opposition to develop separate views on the concept of death from a medical point of view (Lella & Pawluch 1988, p. 140).
To prove the idea, Ozcinar (2011) remarks “mind-body, soul-body is discussed together with the problem of human, which is the basic problem of philosophy, what human being is and what kind of a world people live in” (214). At the same time, the author refers to the human body representation as a physiological organism possessing tools to achieve goals (Ozcinar, 2011). Such a dualism explains the controversies arisen around the concept and nature of death, which is seen both as a transition of a soul-body to another life and as the termination of mechanism functioning.
The modern social theories representing the human body reveal attractive and aesthetical ideas. At this point, Shilling reveals an idea that “is a receptor, rather than a generator, or social meanings” (p. 62). As a result, the concept of death is also represented through the prism of socialized views on the process of human dying, which prevents from perceiving this action as a biological act. Within this context, social norms reveal that in order to achieve the so-called “good death”, people should necessarily go through accepted behavioral patterns and emotions attributed to each stage.
All these accepted viewed contributed to the development of the existing ideology of “dying with dignity” (Howarth 2007, p. 137). More importantly, the ideology has become a dominated principle of social management of death (Lapum 2003; Jesani 2004). Explaining death from this angle allows people to work out specific coping mechanisms to suppress their emotions (Stringer 2007). This is especially pertinent to the physicians who need to accept death as a medicalized condition, rather than as a social construct.
Certainly, full reliance on socialization is inadmissible as far as the scientific dimension is concerned. However, understanding death as an entirely medicalized phenomenon raises a number of ethical issues in society. The concept of a good death, or death with dignity, can take place with regard to the purpose of health professionals to ease the pain of terminally ill patients, but not to prolong their lives (Gillet 2003, p. 225). Similar assumptions are valid when it comes to the perception of cadaver experiences because the human body should be considered as an objectified phenomenon, but there is still to be respectful to “human” material.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the concept of death with dignity is a complicated phenomenon that does not have a place in medical practice. At the same time, nurses should think beyond cultural, social, and historical stereotypes while evaluating physical and biological conditions within the context of technological advances and medicalization of the human body. On the one hand, the human body has long been perceived as a social construct engaging the notions of life and death. Hence, physicians should not regard such a concept as a good death because it will hamper making rational decisions and suppressing emotions and feelings. This is of particular concern to cadaver experience when dead people are associated with the self.
Armstrong, P, & Blute, M 2010, ‘Reports of the Death of the Sociology of Science Have Been Greatly Exaggerated the Death of the Sociology of Science’, Canadian Review Of Sociology, vol.47, no. 4, pp. 431-444.
Gillet, GR 2003, ‘In search of a good death: Good death is achievable if task becomes easing death, not prolonging life’, BMJ, vol. 327, no. 7408, pp. 225.
Howarth, G 2007, Death and Dying: A Sociological Introduction, US: Polity.
Jesani, A. 2004, ‘Medicalisation of ‘legal’ killing: doctors’ participation in the death penalty’, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4, 104-105.
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Lapum, J 2003, ‘In search of a good death: A good death and medicalisation need not be polarised’, BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), vol. 327, no. 7408, pp. 224-225.
Lella, JW & Pawluch, D 1988, Medical Students and the Cadaver in Social and Cultural Context. In M. Lock and R. Gordon (eds.) Biomedicine Examined, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 125-53.
Moller, DW 1990, Technological Medicine, the Technocratic Physician and Human Dying. In On Death Without Dignity: The Human Impact of Technological Dying, New York: Baywood Publishing Company, 26-37.
Ozcinar, M 2011, ‘Visual Representation in the Context of Social and Cultural Body Perception’, International Journal Of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 9, pp. 213-228.
Shilling, C 2003, The Body and Social Theory, US: SAGE.
Stringer, S 2007, ‘Quality of death: humanisation versus medicalisation’, Cancer Nursing Practice, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 23-28.