Is death denied in contemporary Australian society? As health professionals and patients in contemporary Australia increasingly become involved in care situations that are likely to lead to death, there is has been an increase in the literature devoted to such issues as palliative care and end of life decision making…
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The emergence of hospices and palliative care teams has done much to improve this difficult area of healthcare. Nursing and hospice care professionals, rather than doctors and surgeons, are more routinely faced with dilemmas which related to the dignity of the person, and the way that psychological and social factors can impact positively or negatively on the experiences of patients, relatives and medical staff. This is an area which is less well researched, and the present paper considers the widely held assumption that Australian society generally denies death, and seeks to protect its citizens from facing up to the emotional consequences of death for themselves and their close relatives. At the present time there are heated debates about the ethical and moral issues surrounding death, ranging from support for medically assisted deaths, to vehement opposition of any intervention that could potentially hasten death. These are important issues which Australian society must tease out and openly examine if it is to provide the kind of end of life care that patients expect. The alleged tendency of Australian society to deny death could be seen as endangering attempts to improve end of life care. If people prefer to distance themselves from death, and to avoid talking or thinking about it then it is very difficult to work out what kind of treatment or care would be their ideal preference. For this reason it is important to consider attitudes and cultural values on a wide scale when considering medical and social processes. A medical service which is out of tune with the prevailing culture is unlikely to provide a sensitive and appropriate level of care. A closer look at this intriguing area of healthcare studies reveals that the whole “death denying” label may not be quite as accurate an assessment as it appears on first sight. Historians such as Jalland (2002) and Davis and George (1990) trace the evolution of Australian beliefs and customs from the aboriginal concepts of “The Eternal Dreaming” to the experiences of Australian soldiers in the First World War who were taught to repress the horrors of mass warfare with the so-called “stiff upper lip,” (Jalland, 2002, 306) and to a much more mixed modern situation where multiple ideologies and customs struggle for prominence. Despite a very evident diversity in modern Australia, this notion that the country is a “death denying” nation persists into the present day. Evidence for this “denial of death thesis” is found in the ideas of social scientists in the period from 1955 to 1985. (Zimmermann and Rodin, 2004, 121). Certain traditions such as elaborate funerals and mourning rituals for bereaved families were noted as being important markers of the transition from life to death, in earlier historical periods. In traditional Catholic societies, for example, it was usual to hold a wake to mark the departure of a beloved family member, followed by commemorative mass celebrations. In Jewish societies there are similar commemorative events, and these rituals are deliberately communal and inclusive, providing a supportive framework for bereaved families to lean on while experiencing the first painful stages of loss. (O’Gorman, 1998, 1131-1132) The community as a whole took part in these rituals, and death in such a context
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