Death Education based on Modern Thanatology and Buddhist Thoughts on Death

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  • ABSTRACT

    This article will discuss death education in light of modern thanatology and Buddhist thoughts on death. I will examine the definition of death and both the internal and external problems of death in response to the death of others, such as feelings of anguish. In addition I will discuss the current state of death education as it is being carried out overseas, centering on the United States. I will argue that other countries, including the Republic of Korea, have an urgent need for death education. Most importantly, death education not only prepares a person for their own death, but it also educates us about life. Through Buddhist teachings of mindfulness on death and Nirvāṇa, I will examine the aim of Buddhism. As a result, we will see that the Buddhist perspective on death is focused on one’s mind. This understanding should provide a fundamental resource for modern death education.


  • KEYWORD

    Thanatology , Death Education , Meditation on Death , Buddhist Thoughts of Death , Mindfulness of Death

  • I. Introduction

    In every religion, removing or solving the problem of human suffering is a fundamental and core problem. Suffering has both physical and mental aspects. In particular, death inflicts the greatest amount of suffering. One of the motives for Buddha’s abandoning the secular life was to resolve the problem of death.

    In light of this, thanatology, or studies of death and dying, is now conducted in the United States, many European countries, and Japan, etc., to enable people to have a greater understanding and acceptance of death. Some of these nations now include death education in their public education systems. Most death education is carried out by religions, including Buddhism. It is medical science which analyzes and prolongs life, but it will not be able to “resolve” death. The solution for addressing the issue of death lies in religion. In particular, Buddhism has numerous teachings addressing this issue. Behind these teachings is the active practice of commitment. With this background, my paper will discuss death education in light of current studies on death and dying and the Buddhist perspective of death.

    II. Outline of Death Related Issues

    To examine the issue of death, we should first look at some definitions. First, the medical definition of death is a “heart-lung death” which means a cessation of heartbeat and breathing (Young-gun Lee 1992, 35‑48). Usually a person is considered dead when he/she stops breathing, and his/her heart beats no more. When the heart and lungs stop functioning, then almost immediately, the deterioration of other bodily organs follows. Secondly, there is a “brain-death” which is characterized by a total cessation of brain activity.

    Until the mid-20th century, only heart-lung death was the official standard because brain death was not a recognized state then. The conditions for brain death does not occur in naturally. Since human respiratory center is located at the brain stem, when breathing stops, blood which supplies oxygen to the brain stops flowing. Thus, the supply of energy stops and ultimately the heart stops beating. When the artificial respirator was invented, it became possible to artificially prolong life (Yu 2001, 101‑2). However, the word “brain death,” means that even though the body is alive, there is no brain function. And since vegetation also has no brain function, this is referred to as a “vegetative stats.”

    We must also look at the Buddhist definition of death as described in Záāhánjīng:

    This paragraph tells us that upon death, the three elements of āyus, uṣṇa, vijñāna become detached from the body. Āyus (壽命) is life and uṣṇa (暖) is a warmness or temperature, so these two elements may be considered biological aspects. We can say that āyus is the duration of one’s life, and uṣṇa is a condition for maintaining life. Buddhism considers vijñāna to be the most important because vijñāna equates to human consciousness. Consciousness enables discernment, judgment, inference etc. If more profound studies examining and comparing both the medical and Buddhist definitions of death were to be conducted, it could be very useful and significant to modern society.

    The internal problems of death, things such as anxiety, fear, pain, etc., create mental and physical problems for each individual. These responses are mentioned often in the sūtras. Physical pain almost certainly accompanies disease and dying. Such physical suffering may be the reason for anxiety and fear, not only to the person experiencing it, but also to the people around them. In this light, physical pain and suffering are certainly major factors in dying.

    There are many kinds of physical pain: a sharp pain, a dull ache, soreness, a burning or stinging sensation, etc. Pain may be either acute or chronic pain. It may also accompany several psychological disorders (Lynn and Harrold 2007, 94). When the body’s organs are damaged or their functions are disrupted, it is almost always followed by pain. As previously stated, this pain is the primary reason for fear. Pain may be said to be the most important aspect of death.

    Alfons Deeken suggested nine kinds of anxiety and fear associated with death (Deeken 2008, 48‑53):

    Thus, it should be clear that death education should be conducted to help us overcome our fear of death and to prepare us for our own demise.

    The problems associated with death are not limited to oneself. They include familial and other relationships and even social connections. Losing a family member or someone close to you is a big shock for anyone. Responses to this may be expressed as anger, violence, panic or anguish. Since these are very heavy emotional states, modern death education emphasizes the stress of the bereaved, and it is often included in any curriculum for death education. A more detailed model of the stress suffered by bereaved people was suggested by Alfons Deeken in Twelve Stages of Grief (2005, 32‑42);

    Alfons Deeken suggests that these stages may not apply to everyone, but all people will generally go through some psychological process of grief. It may not follow any exact order. The stages sometimes overlap, and these grief experiences may occupy a great part of one’s life. The most significant stages are ① to ⑤ because they are heavier emotional states. In order to enter stages ⑩ through ⑫, one needs death education and the role of religion is crucial here. In addition, suicide and euthanasia are also possible grief responses, and these are weighty social issues.

    III. Discussion about Death Education

    The word, thanatology, is derived from Greek. In Greek mythology, “Thanatos” (θάνατος: death) is the word for death. The English suffix “-ology” derives from the Greek suffix “-logia” (-λογια: speaking). Thanatology is an interdisciplinary study on the circumstances surrounding a person’s death. Academic fields associated with thanatology include philosophy, religion, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry. In the United States and Europe, death education and studies of death began in the 1960s, about fifty years ago. Also Japan began actively studying it in the 1970s, and death education is now supported by Japanese national policy. Thanatology as a field of study first appeared in Herman Feifel’s book The Meaning of Death (1959). Later, Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross first identified the “five stages of grief” in her book On Death and Dying (1969). Since then, studies of death have delved much deeper (Moon 2005, 295). The five stages of grief suggested by Dr. Kübler-Ross are as follows:

    The first stage is denial and isolation. For example, if a cardiac patient is told that he/she might live another month, he/she may experience shock and the fear of a hopeless situation. They may ask themselves, “Why me?,” “Why now?” Such denial of one’s own death is the first response. Then, the patient may develop doubts and begin thinking they were misdiagnosed. They may look for another doctor and not tell anyone about their situation.

    The second stage is anger. This is due to jealousy of the living and is expressed in various ways. With such symptoms as vomiting blood, losing ones hair or losing one’s stamina, these feelings of anger may extend to family, doctors or even God. Their anger may increase sharply (Kübler-Ross 1969, 377).

    The third stage is bargaining. This is the stage where one may hope for more time. This is a psychological stage where patients try to face their own situation and hope their lives might be prolonged. He/she may follow their doctor’s orders diligently. This is also the stage where a very religious person may wish for a miracle to prolong their life.

    The fourth stage is depression. As one feels their strength, their abilities, and their appetite declining, the patient’s feelings of being self-reliant may decline, and they will become depressed. By this time, they may no longer deny their impending death.

    The fifth stage is acceptance. In this stage, the patient is obliged to accept their impending death and acknowledge they do not have long to live. Furthermore, after passing through the depression stage, they may increasingly contact others. Through this stage, self-understanding may increase gradually (Kübler-Ross 1969, 126). However, this process of acceptance is not pleasant and conscious. This is the stage of “the last rest before beginning the long journey.”

    Another important researcher and author is Dr. Raymond A. Moody who pioneered studies into near-death experiences. His book Life after Life contained over 100 cases studies of near-death experiences and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. A “near-death experience” is when a person becomes clinically dead, but then is brought back to life and they remember their experiences when they were dead. Its influence continues to this day and was largely responsible for the founding of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) which is still active today. Nowadays, thanatology is studied by many scholars and has become interconnected with other studies.

    These studies of death are now included in the education curriculum of some countries. Especially, in American middle schools and high schools, death education has become common (Becker 2004, 8), and in the states of Delaware and Minnesota, these programs are designed by professional curriculum designers. Moreover, the University of Delaware created a special task force to create a major school curriculum on death and dying. Also, a number of American colleges and universities have begun organizing programs and teaching courses on thanatology. Among the more well-known courses are those begun by John Morgan at the Centre for Education about Death and Bereavement, Bob Fulton at the University of Minnesota, and Gerry Cox at the University of Wisconsin. They are major designers of death education programs. In addition, many American universities have established courses on death and dying so that there are now about a hundred programs on bereavement counseling, death education and thanatology (Becker 2004, 9).

    In Germany, middle schools and high schools have established religious education classes for two hours each week with separate classes for Catholics and Protestants, and in these classes, death and dying are discussed. Death education is presented to students according to their age and varies from grade to grade. In Great Britain, awareness of the need for bereavement education has increased, and the “experience of loss and grief” is more often a part of the curriculum in middle schools and high schools (Deeken 2008, 99‑124). In Sweden, bereavement education is actively taught in schools and is supported by administrative services.

    In Japan, the government became concerned about the rise of teenage crime and suicide, so the Japanese government budgeted 4 million dollars to develop a curriculum to teach about life and death and began testing it in schools around the country in 2005. Education on the awareness of life and death will be provided in middle schools and high schools. In addition, about two dozen Japanese colleges now teach courses on death and dying (Deeken 2008, 7‑11).

    Including the Republic of Korea, many countries now provide sex education to teach growing adolescents proper values regarding sex in hopes of preventing problems such as sex crimes, abortion, etc. In the same way, death education might help prevent or help people cope with such issues as suicide, bereavement etc. Until now, the Republic of Korea has not provided death education in public schools as the United States, Europe, and Japan are doing. Moreover, research on thanatology is not extensive. It is important to assist dying people, but it is also important to educate children about death as these other countries are doing. Furthermore, death education not only educates us about death but also educates us about the study of life and death, ultimately tying life and death together (Yong-pyo Kim 2004, 227). Therefore, death education during adolescence is very important.

    Following are the results of a survey administered to Korean teenagers. To the question “Did you have death education in school?” the responses were: ‘yes (5%),’ ‘a little (26%),’ ‘none (69%).’ To the question “Have you felt the urge to commit suicide?” the responses were: ‘yes (42.4%),’ ‘no (57.6%).’ The reasons for considering suicide were: ‘I lost meaning in my life (59.2%),’ ‘feelings of alienation from broken relationships (29%)’ (Lee, Jae-young 2004, 42‑44).

    And in the Republic of Korea, the number of suicides among elementary, middle and high school students has increased by 50% since 2008 with high school students comprising 69% of the total number. Youth suicides are on the increase, and moreover, the Republic of Korea has the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries with 22 suicides per hundred thousand people. Suicide is the leading cause of death among South Koreans between the ages of 20 and 30. On the other hand, in the United States and other nations, the most frequent cause of death for the 20‑30 age group is car accidents. Accordingly, the Republic of Korea has an urgent need to recognize the need for and implement death education as soon as possible.

    IV. Discussion on Developing Death Education

    Carl Becker argued that some children worry about dying while others worry about their parents dying, so he believes that death education should begin in elementary school. In addition, children need to be aware that there are always dangers around which may result in death, such as: traffic accidents, household fires, drowning, etc. Becker also suggested that education about the value of life, including animals, should be taught as well. He also suggested that such death education be reflected in movies, books, etc. (Becker 2004, 6‑7).

    In his book, Alfons Deeken (2008, 106‑11) cites as one example the German textbook on death education, Dying-Death-Revival, which is used to teach middle and high school students. Seventeen hours of lessons are taught from this textbook. The first through seventh lessons discuss issues related to death, such as religious and medical views about euthanasia, patients in a vegetative state, patient’s rights, doctors’ responsibilities, etc. The eighth through fourteenth lessons present a aesthetical approach to death and how to help a dying person. They also discuss the research of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and the issues of pain and sympathy. Through studying religion, students read explanations of near-death experiences and learn how to accept death as a fact of life. In conclusion, it is suggested that research into death is required for us to have a better appreciation of life.

    Courses on bereavement in the state of Minnesota begin with teachers dividing students by age groups: ages 5‑8, ages 9‑13 and ages 14‑17. Then teachers encourage them to participate in eight lessons beginning with a self-introduction. In the second week, teachers explain that all people will eventually go through a process of grief. In the third week, the students talk with people who have experienced grief from the death of someone. In the fourth week, students and teachers share their memories of deceased people they have known. In the fifth week, funerals are treated. In the sixth week, students go on a field trip to a funeral home. In the seventh week, the children talk together. In the eighth week, parents and children gather together and talk about how the lessons have changed them (Deeken 2008, 112‑17).

    Lastly, I will review the course curriculum for “Philosophy of Death” taught at Japan’s Sophia University (上知大學). Lesson 1 introduces philosophical research on the meaning of death. Lesson 2 teaches students how to understand the stages of dying. Lessons 3 through 5 teach about grief. In lesson 6, the professor teaches students about understanding the fear of death. In lesson 7, they learn about humor and death and the role of humor in the process of dying. In lessons 8 and 9, they learn how and why suicides happen. In lesson 10, students learn about near-death experiences. In lessons 11 and 12, they learn different views of the afterlife. In lesson 13, students learn the history of the study of death. In lessons 14 through 16, the professor teaches students about the problems and psychology of terminal patients. In lessons 17 through 22, students learn about aesthetical approaches to death. In lessons 23 and 24, students learn about various definitions of death and about funerals. Finally, in the last lesson, students learn about mental and spiritual growth in the face of death  (Deeken 2008, 187‑92).

    Many countries now conduct death education in elementary, middle and high schools using curriculums similar to these. In essence, these curriculums try to help people eliminate: their fears of death, the taboo about discussing death and misunderstandings about death. Teachers encourage students to accept death naturally. It is also suggested that dying may not be an ultimate end for us.

    In particular, the lessons frequently contain Dr. Kübler-Ross’ studies on near-death experiences. The reason behind this may be because they effectively change our image or perception of death. Kübler-Ross suggests in her book, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (1975), that, “Death is the final stage of growth” (Kübler-Ross 1975, 110). She also says that death is a valuable aspect of life and promotes spiritual and mental growth and that studies of death and experiences with death help to enrich the world. One pioneer in the study of near-death experiences is Dr. Raymond A. Moody. A student once told him about the experience his grandmother had when she died and was brought back to life. Afterward, Dr. Moody began studying other peoples’ near-death experiences which he described in his book Life After Life (1976). It is an important resource for the study of death and effectively changes our negative perceptions of death.

    We have now briefly examined some of the content of research into death and the curricula used in death education. Thanatology and death education are becoming more and more established in many countries. I suggest that religion can be a powerful resource in death education and death studies, especially Buddhism.

    In the United States, studies on the “practice of mindfulness” are increasing. Mindfulness (念) is mindfulness about four bases of Vipassanā meditation, the term in Pali is sati, which means recollection or awareness with attention, and it is related to brain science, neuro-physiology, psychology, etc. It has been actively studied. So far, I have discussed the content of death education and death studies, but these are mostly based on various viewpoints, teachings and debates on death and related social problems (suicide, euthanasia) etc. However, if we want the study of death to be deeper and more effective, the “aspect of experience” and the “aspect of practice” should be reflected in such education. Many forms of practice are presented in the Buddhist scriptures, and they would be very useful in death education.

    For example, Buddhists have a practice called “mindfulness of death” (念死) which is one of the “ten kinds of mindfulness” (十念)1. The Buddhist scripture Aṅguttara-nikāya (AN 3:304‑5) says this about the “mindfulness of death”:

    To Buddha’s question, six bikkhus (disciples) respond one by one. One says, ① I might live for a day and night. Another says, ② I might live for a day. A third says ③ I might live for the interval which may allow me to eat a meal A fourth says ④ I might live for the interval that allows me to swallow after having chewed up four morsels of food. A fifth says ⑤ I might live for the interval which allows me to swallow after having chewed up one morsel of food. The sixth says ⑥ I might live for the interval which allows me to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out. Thus, the six bikkhus talked about six ways to be mindful of death.

    Responses ① through ④ are due to laziness, but responses ⑤ and ⑥ are agile ways of developing mindfulness of death. Not forgetting about death and being aware of the truth that one is always only seconds away from death at any moment is the essence of mindfulness of death.

    These responses are meditations on death and are a more direct method of death education than is currently taught. In addition, they could be considered “life education” teaching us that all of life’s moments are valuable and important. And there are many other practices in Buddhism that would be useful in death education.

    Mindfulness of death is a “preparatory meditation for death” and is a more direct form of death education than is being used now. Moreover it is an active preparatory training for death. In doing so, moment by moment, students will feel life to be more valuable and important. Such meditation on death is also an education on life as it allows one to experience more acutely one’s own life and become conscious that one is alive.

    The Buddhist practice of mindfulness of death could play an important role in our society by helping us recognize the distortions and exaggerations we have about death. From this perspective, Buddhist meditation on death would be a powerful and direct method of death education. Although I have only discussed the practice of mindfulness of death in this article, there are numerous other Buddhist practices which can provide many resources and references to modern death education. However, if these practices are applied in elementary, middle and high schools, that may have a negative effect. Only if teachers thoroughly understand the Buddhist practice of mindfulness of death and apply it appropriately to modern education can it be effective and without negative consequences.

    For example, a student may ask, “If my parents pass away, what should I do? What attitude should I have toward my parents while they are alive?” Holding this question in mind and concentrating one’s thoughts would be a good way to gradually develop a new outlook. Also, if this practice is applied to bereavement education, it will have a powerful influence.

    This verse from the Dàbānnièpánjīng (大般涅槃經) explains the Buddhist view of death.

    What this verse means is that life and death must cease first (生滅滅已). Then one can free oneself from death (Yong-Pyo Kim 2004, 72).

    In Buddhist thought, the process of birth, death and rebirth is a passage through twelve limbs of dependent arising (十二緣起). The twelve limbs of dependent arising are: avidyā (無明, ignorance, unenlightenment) saṃskāra (行, action-intentions), vijñāna (識, consciousness), nāmarūpa (名色, name and form), ṣaḍāyatana (六處, the six-fold sphere of sensory contact), sparśa (觸, contact), vedanā (受, sensation, feeling), tṛṣṇā (愛, thirst, desire), upādāna (取, grasping, appropriation), bhava (有, being, existing), jāti (生, birth), jarāmaraṇa (老死, old age and death). These are all created by the phenomenon of dependent arising which is based on cause-and-effect relationships. For example, if death as an effect does not arise, birth as a cause can not exist. However, birth is also a result of previous causes. It is not possible to consider Nirvāṇa by only considering birth and death. In other words, if one goes up the stream to the original source, there is a ignorance (avidyā, 無明). Ignorance is not a substance, but an action of mind. If avidyā (無明) changes to vidyā (明), it could reach the Nirvāṇa of the unborn and undying.

    Overcoming death and life might be the ultimate aim of Buddhism. Buddha did not overcome physical death, but he overcame the ignorance of life and death. Ignorance is a problem of mind. It is not a substance but a sphere of mind. Thus, the state one reaches after overcoming fundamental ignorance is Nirvāṇa. It is the final and ideal state of Buddhism in which all instincts and afflictions are extinguished. Then, death and its related mental phenomena will also be extinguished. These Buddhist concepts can provide fundamental resources for modern thanatology and death education and should be adapted to studies of death.

    After the body dies, much psychological distortion and phenomena occurs around it. The Buddhist concept of death indicates that death should be treated as an aspect of psychology. Therefore, current death education needs to be reassessed and restructured with this in mind.

    1Ten kinds of mindfulness taught in the Zēngyīāhánjīng (增一阿含經) are as following; mindfulness of the Buddha (念佛), mindfulness of the dharma (念法), mindfulness of the saṃgha (念僧), mindfulness of the precepts (念戒), mindfulness of giving (念施), mindfulness of the gods (念天), mindfulness of cessation of thoughts (念休息), mindfulness of breath-counting (念安般), mindfulness of the fact that the body is not eternal (念身非常), and mindfulness of death (念死).

    V. Conclusion

    I have researched and discussed modern thanatology and death education. I have examined the definition of death as a primary process and also examined the internal and external problems related to death.

    The United States, many European countries, Japan and others already conduct death education based on studies of death. To increase peoples’ awareness of life, all countries should conduct death education. This is important because death education not only directly teaches students about death but also teaches them about life. Japan plans to implement death education in public schools due to the increase in teenage crime. Death education is effective in preventing teenage suicide, but teenage crime rates will also be reduced by death education. Moreover, death education may also have a positive effect on other crimes stemming from teenage angst over a divorce or a bereaved parent. Education about life and death during adolescence will affect one’s entire life. Therefore, death education can also educate us about life because death makes us ask ourselves many questions.

    Finally, through the Buddhist practice of mindfulness of death and Nirvāṇa, I have examined what is the aim of Buddhism and what is the Buddhist perspective on death. The Buddhist perspective of death focuses on the mind. We have also examined why the Buddhist perspective could be a great resource to modern death education. As soon as possible, the study of death and dying should be implemented in Republic of Korea schools and in other countries. Using our many Buddhist scriptures about death and dying as references, I hope thanatology will become a more active area of study.

      >  Abbreviations

    AN A?guttara-nik?ya.

    T Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (大正新脩大藏經, Japanese edition of the Buddhist Canon) [followed by volume, page, and horizontal column]. (Tokyo: Taish? Issaiky? kank?kai, 1924?1935)

  • 1. Dab?nniepanj?ng 大般涅槃經. T. 12, no. 2. google
  • 2. Za?hanj?ng 雜阿含經. T. 2, no. 99. google
  • 3. Carl Becker 2004 “Death Education and Religion in Schools and Modern Society.” [Jonggyo Gyoyukhak Yeongu] Vol.19 google
  • 4. Alfons Deeken, Oh Jin-tak 2005 How to Greet the Death. google
  • 5. Alfons Deeken, Jeon Seon-gon 2008 Thanatology as the Humanities. google
  • 6. Fabrizio Didonna 2009 Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. google
  • 7. Kim Jae-Sung 2007 “Chogi Bulgyo mit Sangjwa Bulgyo-eseo Jukeumui Myeongsang” 초기불교 및 상좌불교에서 죽음의 명상 [Meditation on Death in Early Buddhism]. [Bulgyohak Yeongu] Vol.16 google
  • 8. Kim Yong-Pyo 2004 “Bulgo-eseo Bon Jukeumgwa Jonggyo Gyoyuk” 불교에서 본 죽음과 종교 교육 [Death and Death Education of Buddhist Thoughts]. [Jonggyo Gyoyukhak Yeongu] Vol.19 google
  • 9. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 1969 On Death and Dying. google
  • 10. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 1975 Death: The Fnal Stage of Growth. google
  • 11. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Yeom Seong 1994 On Death and Dying. google
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  • 13. Lee Jae-young 2004 “Cheongsonyeondeurui Jukeume Daehan Uisikgwa Jonggyogyoyuk” 청소년들의 죽음에 대한 의식과 종교교육 [Cognition of Death for Adolescents and Religion education]. [Jonggyo Gyoyukhak Yeongu] Vol.19 google
  • 14. Joanne Lynn, Harrold Joan, Ju Hyeong-gyu, Oh Sang-eun 2007 Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness. google
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  • 18. Yu Ho-jong 2001 Tteonam hokeun Eopeojim 떠남 혹은 없어짐 [Leaving or Disappearing]. google