Thanatology and the Role of a Thanatologist Explained

Published September 16, 2020
thanatologist speaking with elderly patient

Thanatology is the holistic study of death and takes into consideration bodily changes, psychological shifts, and the social issues surrounding death and loss. Thanatology can be applied to a vast array of different career choices including counseling, investigative services, medical services, and music. Otherwise known as a deathlore, a thanatologist can provide incredibly helpful services to individuals and families going through or witnessing the death and dying process.

Field of Thanatology

The field of thanatology focuses on all the aspects surrounding a death, including:

Thanatologist Definition

According to Your Dictionary, thanatology is, "the study of death, esp. of the medical, psychological, and social problems associated with dying."

Why Is Thanatology Important?

Better understanding the death and dying process from several perspectives can help inform thanatologists of the unique issues that individuals may experience. Thanatologists, whether working as a care provider or assisting care providers, can provide a wealth of in-depth knowledge that can help increase the level of care received by those facing death, as well as assist their surviving family members process their experience.

What Do Thanatologists Do?

Thanatologists, in general, work in the field of death, so any career that has to do with death and dying, a thanatologist can likely work in. Depending on one's specialty, as well as other schooling and training, a thanatologist can:

  • Counsel
  • Work as a coroner
  • Work as part of a hospice team
  • Provide resources and support to those in a hospital setting
  • Use thanatology to inform their pastoral duties
  • Work as a death doula (emotional support for those in the process of dying)
  • Work as a funeral director
  • Work in elderly care
  • Use thanatology to inform their work as a medical professional
  • Use thanatology to inform their work as an archaeologist
senior couple with funeral director

History of Thanatology

Thanatology, comes from the word thanatos, meaning death in Greek, and it came into the scientific picture in the 1950s. While the subject of death has seemed to interest human beings since the early B.C.s, around the 19th century, the notion of denial emerged when it came to confronting one's own death. After the first and second World War, many books emerged on the subject of death, grief, and coping with loss. In the 1960s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross created the five stages of grief model and pushed forward the thanatology movement.

Who Founded Thanatology?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is noted as the founder of thanatology. Kubler-Ross is well known for her five stages of grief model.

Thanatologist Job Description

Thanatology job descriptions will vary depending on certain specialties. Hiring managers may be looking for:

  • Nurse practitioner with a degree or certification in thanatology
  • A hospice massage therapist with a degree or certification in thanatology
  • A hospice bereavement coordinator
  • A licensed practical nurse for crisis care
  • A grief counselor or therapist
  • A hospice chaplain

Different Types of Thanatologists

Thanatology specialties may include:

  • Thanatology psychology: A psychological thanatologist is a counselor or therapist who works with individuals in the process of dying, or in the process of losing a loved one.
  • Pastoral thanatologist: A thanatologist who attends to the religious needs of someone who is in the process of dying.
  • Death doula: A thanatologist who helps emotionally support an individual in the process of passing away.
  • Forensic thanatologist: A forensic thanatologist investigate post-mortem bodily changes to help determine the circumstances around a death.
  • Music thanatologist: Music thanatology is the practice of using music to soothe and calm a person who is in the process of passing away. They may be part of an end-of-life care team, along with other professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and social workers.
man playing guitar

Thanatology Certification

If you are already in a role, or are working towards a role that has to do with death and loss, you may consider getting a certification in thanatology to further your understanding on the subject. Certification courses will vary depending on which school you choose to enroll in, but there are both online and in person schooling options available depending on your specific needs.

Thanatology Degree

Masters of Science degrees are offered in some school programs for those who are planning on assisting individuals work through grief, bereavement, as well as suicide related issues. Courses will vary depending on the program you select, with both online and in person options available. To qualify for a masters program, one must already have a bachelor's degree.

Thanatology Salary

On average, thanatologists may make anywhere from $17,000 to $120,000 depending on the position held. Salaries will vary depending on the career and the location of services.

Understanding Thanatology

A thanatologist provides important services and resources around the subject of death and dying. A thanatologist may have a certain specialty, or use their thanatology certification or degree to bolster their knowledge in their existing career.

Thanatology and the Role of a Thanatologist Explained