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Revisiting medicalisation and 'natural' death

  • Medicine
  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences


The contemporary conceptualisation of natural death in social science and health care literature may be seen as elision of potentially paradoxical ideas in which the process of dying, as opposed to the moment of death, is a key determinant of the manner in which death is regarded. In the predominant rhetoric, medical-technological intervention during dying is emblematic of inhumane and unnatural death. Highly technological clinical settings, where medical intervention in the process of dying is so clearly visible, are held up as extreme examples of the metamorphosis of death from 'natural' into 'unnatural' events. This paper examines the reification of 'natural' death within these writings, focusing on the taken for granted polarisation of technology and 'natural' death with which they are underpinned. The paper then turns to an assessment of the validity of this reification by examining some ethnographic case study data concerning the experiences of the close companions of three people who died, or came near to death, within intensive care: arguably an environment in which death is at its most highly medicalised. The data, which are drawn from a wider ethnography of death and dying in two general adult intensive care units, suggest that it is perceptions of the meaning of technology, rather than its simple minimisation or absence, which determine representations of death within highly technological settings. These perceptions in their turn depend crucially on the circumstances with which dying is attended. In this study the 'natural' process of death was preserved for the companions of dying people when medical technology delivered the outcomes they expected, appeared to be amenable to human manipulation and intention, was accessible to their understanding and seemed to 'fit' with the wider context of the dying person's life. The paper concludes by arguing that it is within the phenomenology of suffering associated with the critical illness or death of a close companion that some insights may be gleaned of the relationship between individual experience, the cultural representation of 'natural' death, and the attitudinal ambivalence with which medical technology is surrounded.

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