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Relatives of the living dead
  1. J Thompson
  1. Correspondence to:
 J Thompson
 Department of Philosophy, The University of Melbourne, VIC 3010, Australia; jlthom{at}

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Death has a social meaning in every culture. It is not something that concerns only the person who dies, but also his or her family, friends and other people in the community. Most people have an idea of what counts as a good death—for the person concerned or for those who survive. Some people would prefer to die suddenly and painlessly, in their sleep if possible. But for many people, a good death is a process in which they gradually lose their hold on life, become reconciled to their end and say goodbye to their loved ones. From the point of view of relatives and friends, a good death is likely to be one in which they have a chance to show their feelings for the dying person and to become reconciled to their loss as the patient’s life fades away. At the end of this process, there is a dead body that can be put to rest in an appropriate ceremony, and then those still surviving are free to begin learning to live without the dead person.

Problems, ethical and social, arise when the social understanding of death and how the living should relate to the dead and dying clash with medical definitions of death, …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.