Psychology Death and Dying
Sheldon Solomon, JS Piven
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0144


Human beings are uniquely aware of death, for they can conceive the future, imagine the death of loved ones, and plot their own slow decay into aging, disease, death, and decomposition in the cold worm-riddled earth. Since the earliest remnants of human culture, death was a trenchant mystery, bewilderment, and horror. It afflicted and perplexed the imagination, forcing us to wonder why we existed, why we were created, and what purpose there might be in a life destined for ineluctable decay and disappearance. Religious rituals and stories reflected our tremors, questions, and yearning to place death into the continuity of nature, the divine, and the cycles of being around them. Poets and philosophers have also limned the despair of human evanescence and death since antiquity. Socrates asserted that philosophy was a preparation for death, while Lucretius and Cicero claimed that the fear of death inspired the belief in gods and afterlives. Ovid wrote that the completion of his work would withstand time and death, and not even Jove could abolish the immortality attained through such poetry. Death has inspired religion, poetry, philosophy, art, and the ornaments of culture through the ages. Though death remains and ever haunts us, we often bury our mortality in tombs of silence. We avoid its specter and speak cryptically of things ghastly, uncanny, or repulsive. We thrive on visual carnage and a pornographic immersion in death as an evasion of our own buried fears and yearnings. The way we contend with death varies among cultures, individuals, and periods in history. Scholarly treatments of death have traversed many phases during the last century. Where subtle silence and avoidance of death in psychology once prevailed, an efflorescence of formal studies detailing our obsessions, denials, and diverse cultural preparations appeared toward the latter half of the 20th century. Studies accrued on the relationships between death and psychopathology, the ways that children understand and cope with death, and the historical modes of imagining, comprehending, depicting, grieving, ritualizing, and even celebrating death. Where quiescence previously reigned, a cascade of different approaches surged. This article cannot incorporate every significant study of death; hence, numerous works that are important and erudite have been omitted. The studies that are cited in this article have been included because they are pioneering, essential, innovative, or contribute something unique to the diverse array of thanatological researches.


Numerous anthologies on death contain works that deserve individual citation for their erudition and innovation. Space restricts the ability to list them all, but this section includes compilations that make original and scholarly contributions to various fields in death studies. This is especially relevant when a collection of superlative individual articles form a body of work that has a major impact on that discipline. Spanning discussions of the fear of death, existentialism, ideology, childhood, mental illness, religion, and art, Feifel 1959 contains numerous foundational works that are required reading, including chapters by Jung, Wahl, Tillich, Marcuse, Kastenbaum, Nagy, and Schneidman. Feifel 1977 is a follow-up volume that also includes contributions from eminent scholars, such as Kastenbaum, Schneidman, Weisman, and Lifton, that broaden the perspectives of the first book with chapters on contemporary America, development, suicide, health care, education, and history. Liechty 2002 is ostensibly devoted to scholarly discussions of Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death, which has provoked much debate since its publication in 1973 (see Becker 1973, cited under Society). The chapters in Liechty 2002 are not merely confined to discussion of Becker’s ideas; they span profound analyses of religion, the psychology of leaders and groups, forms of bigotry, psychopathology, and transference fantasies pervading individual and group perceptions. Piven 2004 traverses disciplines to provide penetrating analyses of the fantasies that attach to historical attitudes, belief systems, and cultural changes. Chapters span analyses of religious violence and martyrdom, Buddhist misogyny, traumatic events relived through art work, creativity, individual and social delusion, mythology, therapy, and humor. Ruitenbeek 1969 also collates some classical and seminal works on the psychology of death, including chapters by Eissler, Chadwick, Slochower, and Klein. While some articles accord with a psychoanalytic perspective that sees death as a symptom that masks underlying issues, such as the fear of guilt or castration, other chapters argue that the dread of death actually impels these other symptoms and infuses our emotional lives far more than we consciously perceive. Toynbee, et al. 1969 contains some scholarly treatments of death across religious and philosophical traditions, and certain discussions of history, Eastern religions, the recent Western decline in religion, and war are executed lucidly. Certain closing chapters on the frontiers of speculation that focus on out-of-body experiences, psychical research, and possible next worlds, however, may strike readers as jejune, unscholarly, and frivolous.

  • Feifel, H., ed. 1959. The meaning of death. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Generally considered the first major work in academic psychology of the study of death and dying based on a 1956 American Psychological Association symposium, “The Concept of Death and Its Relation to Behavior,” which included expert panelists in the fields of anthropology, psychiatry, art, literature, religion, philosophy, biology, and theology.

  • Feifel, H., ed. 1977. New meanings of death. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Scholarly contributions by eminent scholars from various fields of death studies. Includes chapters on death in contemporary America, death through the lifespan, the meanings of death among children, and psychiatric, pedagogic, and poetic approaches to death. Some intriguing and original chapters about death, historical shifts, immortality ideologies, power, and self-esteem.

  • Liechty, D., ed. 2002. Death and denial: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the legacy of Ernest Becker. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    An interdisciplinary volume of essays based on Ernest Becker’s core claim that efforts to deny and transcend death underlie human creativity and resourcefulness. Also contains superlative chapters on group psychology, racism, religious chauvinism, reactive violence, theological and transference dynamics, and modes of pathological behavior.

  • Piven, J., ed. 2004. The psychology of death in fantasy and history. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    An anthology that seeks a psychological understanding of the ways people have conceived and fantasized death throughout history, immersed themselves in immortality ideologies, relived and depicted catastrophic devastation and trauma, inflicted their dread of death and nonbeing on others, canonized their dread of death and female sexuality in religious doctrines, and so on.

  • Ruitenbeek, H. M., ed. 1969. Death: Interpretations. New York: Dell.

    Nuanced articles on the fear of death, suicidal longings, psychotherapy, depression, grief, bereavement, and mourning. Debates whether death is feared versus aphanisis or loss of pleasure, whether death anxiety is a symptom of pathology or a causative agent, and how much the dread of death pervades our conscious and unconscious thoughts, motives, and behaviors.

  • Toynbee, A., Ninian Smart, Simon Yudkin, et al., eds. 1969. Man’s concern with death. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Sophisticated multidisciplinary treatment of death, dying, development, history, religions, dreams, literature, and cinema. While innumerable philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and other works on death could be cited, this volume contains a depth and diversity especially pertinent to the features of this article. Readers should, nevertheless, be forewarned that certain chapters are highly speculative.

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