What is a Thanatologist?

December 22, 2020

A young woman sits alone on a swing reaching for a loved one no longer there. Thanatology studies the medical, emotional, psychological, ethical, and spiritual perspectives of death, loss, and dying.

Few professions provide services that are needed as much of those offered by a thanatologist, particularly during a global pandemic. Professionals in this career develop expertise on the subject of dying, death, grief, and loss, using that knowledge to support people who have experienced great loss and bereavement.

Thanatologists work in many different situations, all of them emotionally complex. They include working for a hospice agency and supporting those who have lost a spouse or parent. Sometimes a thanatologist offers support services to individuals and families bereaved because of a traumatic sudden death such as an accident or suicide. They play a central role in working with families when a family member needs end-of-life healthcare.

Some thanatologists are also educators, working with children in schools or non-profits, or with adults in colleges or continuing education for those in a variety of professions.

People who enter a Master of Science in Thanatology program do so because they want to dedicate their career to understanding how death and loss impact individuals and communities, and use that knowledge to help others. They graduate from the program with the skills and knowledge needed to accomplish that goal.

An Academic Discipline That Examines Death and Its Impact

Thanatology is a scientific discipline that examines death from many perspectives, including physical, ethical, spiritual, medical, sociological, and psychological. It emerged out of the “death awareness movement” that started in the 1950s in the United States and the United Kingdom. Before this time, death education happened within families and communities, because most people died at home. Since World War II, dying and death have been more remote.

In the 21st Century only 20% of Americans die at home, while 60% die in hospitals and 20% die in nursing homes. Families have limited opportunities to care for the dying, or to be present at the death of someone they love. It has become challenging to pass on family and community values and customs related to mourning the dead.

The goal of the founders of the death awareness movement was to improve death education in families and communities. In doing so, they recognized it was important to establish death education – or thanatology – as an academic discipline.

Students of thanatology get a broad-based education on the topic of death, grief, and loss. Marian University’s MS in Thanatology program includes coursework such as:

  • Foundations of Thanatology
  • Bereavement Theory and Practice
  • Cultural Perspectives in Thanatology
  • Applied Ethics and the End of Life
  • Death in the Lives of Children and Teens
  • Complicated Grief
  • Traumatology
  • Understanding Suicide

Those who work in thanatology hold jobs in a wide variety of organizations. They include hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, faith communities, and non-profit organizations. Some focus on working with specific groups, including children, parents, military personnel, and veterans.

At Marian University, the graduate program includes the academic study of dying, death, loss, grief, and non-death loss. The online degree program focuses on both theory and practice, says Dr. Janet McCord, a professor in the program.

Is a Thanatologist a Grief Counselor?

It’s important not to think of “thanatologist” as synonymous with “clinical grief counselor.” Some clinicians specialize in grief therapy but becoming a grief counselor or therapist requires a degree that prepares a graduate for clinical licensure. Grief counselors and therapists need to know the techniques of clinical psychology, but they also need a good education in thanatology.

Grief counseling or therapy is not the primary job destination for thanatologists. Only 3% to 7% of grieving individuals require some sort of clinical care because their grief has triggered a more serious response – usually related to a pre-existing mental health issue.

The Benefits of Thanatology

Death remains a taboo topic for many people. While it happens to everyone, most people simply do not want to think about it more than necessary. But those who study thanatology face the issue of death head-on, studying the impact of death on individuals, families, and communities.

Those who work directly in thanatology may spend time with those who are facing death due to a life-limiting or terminal disease. They may also work with family members of those who are dying, helping them process the loss. Still others engage primarily in bereavement support services.

Taking courses in thanatology can benefit other medical professionals, helping them do their job better. They include medical examiners, coroners, doctors, and nurses. Social scientists also benefit from thanatology courses to learn about rituals and customs used to honor those who have died.

The Marian MS and Graduate Certificate in Thanatology Program

Marian University offers its MS in Thanatology program 100% online through MPath, a student-centered online platform unique to the school. Faculty members have experience in the field, such as Dr. McCord, who holds a PhD from Boston University.

Classes are small, and MPath offers many ways to communicate with professors and fellow students. The degree program, offered in 15-week online semesters, includes 18 credits in core courses and 18 credits of electives. The Graduate Certificate is offered alongside the degree program with students in both programs studying together and includes 12 credits of core courses and 6 credits of electives

The Marian University MS in Thanatology program partners with the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC), the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, The Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), and the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). Members of these organizations are eligible for a tuition discount in the Marian MS in Thanatology program.

McCord said the program works well with people from all walks of life, even those who have experienced a loss in the past (but not too recently, as the coursework could then prove difficult and triggering for them). She added, “We do know that education is therapeutic. Students want to learn more so that they can help someone else.”