The denial of death thesis: sociological critique and implications for palliative care

Palliat Med. 2004 Mar;18(2):121-8. doi: 10.1191/0269216304pm858oa.


It has become commonplace to say that contemporary western society is 'death-denying'. This characterization, which sociologists have termed the 'denial of death thesis', first arose in the social science, psychological and clinical medical literature in the period between 1955 and 1985. During the same time period, the hospice and palliative care movements were developing and in part directed themselves against the perceived cultural denial of death in western society. While the denial of death has been taken for granted by the lay public as well as by clinicians, in the sociological literature it has been increasingly questioned. In this paper we use sociological critiques of the denial of death thesis to raise critical questions about the theory and practice of contemporary palliative care. In particular, we argue that the emphasis of palliative care should not be on extinguishing the denial of death but on the relief of suffering.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death*
  • Denial, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care*
  • Public Opinion
  • Thanatology*