Thanatologists are specialists in a multi-disciplinary field dedicated to better understanding death, dying, grief, loss, and bereavement. They utilize a wide variety of theory and applied practice to support and educate groups and individuals who are navigating end of life issues.  

The Thanatology profession attracts people from varied personal and professional backgrounds who are interested in research and knowledge related to death and loss, applied practitioners who want to work directly with those who are experiencing death and loss, individuals who want to make larger policy and administrative changes and more. 

You may find a thanatologist:  

  • Working directly with families in a hospital or hospice setting 
  • Supporting children who are grieving the death of a parent 
  • Creating community death education opportunities such as hosting a death café 
  • Engaging in research and scholarship in an academic institution 
  • Creating and writing policy that impacts employees 

Thanatologists often navigate emotionally complex situations, using their expertise in death and grief to support those experiencing bereavement and loss by offering counsel, grief coaching and community support. 

Thanatology education attracts people with a desire to understand more about death, grief, and loss and how people can approach these topics. Students may come from backgrounds that include religious work, social work, nursing, emergency services, counseling, art, psychology, medicine, and personal experience with loss. 

A thanatologist may work with a widow or widower who lost a spouse or a parent who lost a child. They may consult with families and loved ones after someone dies due to an accident or suicide or to help children cope with loss. They often work with hospice services, supporting patients and their families through end-of-life care. 

Becoming a thanatologist requires earning a Master of Science in Thanatology degree. The program covers all aspects of thanatology, which fundamentally studies death from multiple perspectives. 

Why Thanatology? 

Thanatologists have taken on a larger role in healthcare as more research shows both the short-term and long-term impact of grieving the death of a loved one. As with other healthcare and related professions, thanatology often attracts those who are interested in creating systemic change that starts with the individual and family.  

The job has become more prevalent, with thanatologists working in churches, funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, and non-profit organizations. Thanatology as a field includes many jobs. 

Thanatology sub-specialties include: 

  • Clergy members 
  • Coroners and medical examiners 
  • Grief coaches 
  • Hospice workers and death doulas 
  • Funeral directors 
  • Philosophers and ethicists 
  • Psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals such as child life specialists 
  • EMS personnel  

Many professionals incorporate thanatology into their current jobs. Marian University’s master’s degree program in thanatology covers these various aspects of the profession, including: 

  • Palliative and Hospice Care 
  • Ethics 
  • Spirituality and Religion 
  • Suicide and Prevention 
  • Traumatic Death 
  • End-of-life Decision Making 
  • Communication with Service Providers and Families 
  • Program Development and Assessment 
  • Diversity 
  • Death Education 

Characteristics of a Thanatologist 

Personality characteristics that help people succeed in thanatology will vary depending on your area of focus, but the following tend to be important across all jobs related to thanatology. 

Critical thinking: Knowing how to understand evidence-based practice, read relevant literature, and apply these concepts to working directly with people is a crucial skill of a thanatologist. Marian’s program teaches students how to utilize and engage concepts from a critical thinking lens. 

Cultural humility: Understanding the importance of difference as it relates to culture, race, gender expression, and spirituality is a core component of a thanatologist. Knowing how the intersection of race and culture impacts death rituals, beliefs and practices about death and loss is integral. Being open and interested in learning about others is essential.  

Good communication: Communication is key for thanatologists as they guide people going through the death process or support loved ones. Some thanatologists become death doulas and provide emotional support for those in the process of dying. 

A thanatologist holds a unique specialization. Their expertise on death and dying is useful in many settings and professions. For those interested in the field, earning a master’s degree prepares them to do well no matter what career path they choose.