CareSearch Blog: Palliative Perspectives

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Representations of Death and Dying

A guest blog post from Deb Parker, Director of the Centre for Applied Nursing Research at Western Sydney University

  • 23 June 2016
  • Author: CareSearch
  • Number of views: 6444
Representations of Death and Dying

Module two (available 4th July) takes us from ‘Engaging with Death and Dying’ in week one to ‘Representations of Death and Dying’. This includes an exploration of how death and dying are portrayed across a variety of medium such as art, literature, film and television and how their portrayal impacts on our day-to-day lives.

Initially we look at Death and Dying via Art and History. In history, we find instructions about death and dying dating as far back as the 15th century with the Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying). We also find other publications on death and dying in the 1600’s that were written with the aim of ensuring that if death occurred unexpectedly then you would always be prepared.

From here we find that death was to be celebrated, ritualised, and was the gateway to heaven and as a result of this we then see the death-bed scenes portrayed in art during this time. They were often of famous scholars, musicians or other famous figures at the time. We are also reminded of other representations such as the war poems from WW1 and songs and music that talk of death and dying (think of Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven following the death of his son). The impact of this acknowledgment of death and dying within society through published texts and art meant that death and dying were embraced as part of life. In contrast, today you may hear the phrase death denying. That is our society no longer embraces death as part of living but has instead hidden or sanitised death and dying.

From there we go to Death and Dying in Film which is more accessible to many and has shown us death in many forms over the years. Death has been portrayed in battle, in love stories, in horror movies and in science fiction, to name a few, but all reflect how society views and assimilates death and dying.

Television more than anything has brought death and dying back into our homes with a plethora of medical shows, and of shows on crime which can quite graphically show body parts and autopsies.  TV is also the medium for documentaries and this provides a reality view of death and dying. However, they are less likely to be viewed than mainstream TV drama shows. So do TV shows depict the reality of death and dying or is this reserved for the documentary? Is the role of the TV medical drama to entertain and not to provide education on the real life of death and dying?

ABC Radio National have explored this topic in some podcasts that you might be interested in listening to: 'Art and Mortality' discusses what has shifted over time in the ways we visualise death and dying through Art.


Deb Parker

Deb Parker, Director of the Centre for Applied Nursing Research at Western Sydney University


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The CareSearch blog Palliative Perspectives informs and provides a platform for sharing views, tips and ideas related to palliative care from community members and health professionals. 

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