Both an academic and applied discipline, thanatology is the study of dying, death, loss, and grief. Thanatologists are individuals who have been specifically trained in the dying and grieving process.
This graduate program prepares you for employment or volunteer work in a variety of settings where care for the dying and/or grieving is important, including hospices; hospitals; faith communities; non-profit organizations; family, children, and teen grief centers; organ and tissue procurement organizations; funeral homes; death education for businesses and communities; and academic settings.
The degree program philosophy is that dying, death, loss, and grief are primarily human experiences with medical aspects and not merely medical events that affect humans.
Thanatology is the systematic study of dying, death, loss, grief, bereavement, life-threatening behavior, traumatic death, suicide, euthanasia, physician-assisted death, and the associated anthropological, developmental, historical, ethical, legal, philosophical, educational, psychological, scientific, sociological, spiritual, and theoretical elements.
Thanatologists are specialists who are knowledgeable about the dying and grieving process including evidence-based practices for family care, cutting-edge literature, and thanatology research.
As a person is actively dying, families and individuals must make difficult decisions regarding end-of-life care. After a person dies, those close to that person must navigate their grief and learn to live with this loss in adaptive and effective ways.
In the Western world, the guiding philosophy of care is highly medicalized, meaning that medical caregivers are primarily concerned with the medical, physical, and clinical aspects of care. After a death, family members, friends, and members of communities must engage in decision-making around funeral rituals, navigate grief, and find ways to emotionally support one another, all in a world where talking about death remains taboo. Thanatology and death education can humanize dying, death, and grief support in ways that lead to better outcomes for patients, families, and communities.
When thinking about developing a career in thanatology, we encourage people to think about what it is they see themselves doing. Do they want to work in bereavement support for a hospice or hospital? Are they a funeral director who wants to know how to support families and communities? Do they see themselves being a better K-12 teacher? Do they want to work one-on-one with grieving individuals in a clinical setting? Do they see themselves facilitating grief support groups? Do they want to enhance their skills as a nurse to go into hospice nursing?
Often, people wonder if they need a clinical degree to become licensed as a counselor or therapist. Lots of licensed clinicians at the master’s and doctoral levels work with grieving persons and families in a clinical setting. For some, that’s all they do. All had to get additional education and training in grief, loss, dying, and trauma because few clinical programs offer more than a few hours on dying, grief, and loss.
Earning a Master of Science in Thanatology can lead to a range of rewarding and worthwhile careers in death and grief, including but not limited to:
Most hospice agencies are not looking for someone with a counseling degree or licensed professional counselors (whether LCSWs, LPCs, PsyDs, or PhDs). What most agencies are looking for are well-versed people, usually with a master’s degree, to develop and direct bereavement programs, and we think that's what our program is designed to do well.
Hospices (getting Medicare reimbursement) are mandated to offer bereavement support to families for 13 months, but most neither desire to develop a clinical grief counseling program nor want to invest the kind of dollars to have clinicians on board to do that. Hospices are federally mandated to provide bereavement follow-up, but the qualifications of bereavement coordinators are not mandated by any agency.
In fact, most hospices put one licensed social worker at the helm of the social work, bereavement, and chaplaincy programs and hire non-licensed people (often with master’s degrees) to do the work. What hospices and their human resources departments don’t always recognize is MSW and MDiv programs do not offer concentrated or comprehensive education in death, dying, grief, loss, or suicide, and MS and most doctoral programs in counseling do not include comprehensive education in grief and loss.
Sometimes, because they are unaware that the Edgewood MS in Thanatology program exists, hospices will hire a non-clinical social worker or chaplain to develop bereavement support services, and whoever gets the job needs to learn the content and gain the appropriate skills. Often, these individuals seek the kind of education they can get at Edgewood College.
Grief is not a mental illness or pathology and, for most individuals, non-clinical professional or peer support can be helpful. About 3 to 10% of individuals need in-depth clinical support that can be provided by licensed counselors with additional education and training in grief and bereavement theory, traumatology, and suicidology.
In most U.S. states, people cannot legally refer to themselves as grief “counselors” unless they are licensed to provide psychological counseling services.
For individuals who are licensed counselors or planning to seek licensure, this degree can enhance knowledge and skills around dying, death, loss, and grief, models and theories of grief and loss, and approaches to clinical care. Often working alongside other medical and therapeutic professionals as part of interdisciplinary teams, grief counselors can provide their services in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, and funeral homes. Many licensed clinicians come to a program like the one at Edgewood College to enhance the counseling services they already offer to individuals and families.
A growing number of hospitals see bereavement follow-up as a good quality assurance move to reduce their risk exposure; people who are well-treated and professionally supported after a loved one's death (and many tragic deaths happen in hospitals) will have better bereavement outcomes. Good bereavement follow-up is both good risk management and good public relations.
Funeral directors, sometimes known as morticians or undertakers, work with the families of the deceased to arrange and implement the logistics of a funeral service. In addition to providing advice and emotional support to families and friends of the deceased, funeral directors manage funeral homes, arrange the transportation of those who have died, prepare the body, submit end-of-life paperwork and legal documents, and help plan wakes.
Increasing numbers of funeral homes across the United States and Canada are recognizing the importance of advance care and funeral planning, grief support, and death education in their communities. Large funeral homes will hire a community care coordinator or “aftercare” coordinator to manage these programs. Those funeral homes offering grief support services to their communities find they retain their local market share.
Funeral directors who are students of thanatology at Edgewood College understand the importance of this community role and see Edgewood College as the best place to learn this knowledge and skill set.
A growing number of large congregations hire people either full-time or part-time to coordinate funerals, run support groups, and provide education on death, end-of-life care, and bereavement in the church's adult education program. Catholic churches sometimes have Ministries of Consolation, and Catholic dioceses that manage cemeteries may also have part- or full-time bereavement support services.
Many healthcare professionals including nurses, physicians, physician assistants, radiation technologists, and others work with chronically ill or dying patients and their families. Healthcare education does not include extensive education in the human and social aspects of dying, death, grief, and loss. Healthcare professionals must learn these aspects of care on-the-job or seek it through a program like the one at Edgewood College.
Military and veteran support personnel are not usually educated in death, dying, grief, and suicide prevention. Education in thanatology can help chaplains, officers, and others who work in supportive roles to be more effective.
In many areas around the world, there are centers that provide support for families and children who are grieving. The Dougy Center in Portland, OR is the Gold Standard, but there are many approaches. To provide good supportive care for families, a grounding in dying, death, grief, and loss are important, and it is essential that those providing these services understand the developmental aspects of dying, grief, and loss. Programs like these usually hire one licensed clinician and hire knowledgeable and educated individuals to manage the organization, train volunteers, and facilitate the program.
Children and teens can be profoundly affected by deaths in their families and in their social circles. Grief can be difficult for young people to navigate, and K-12 educators and school counselors, with the right preparation, can be effective support persons in their lives. This population of educators can benefit from a program that includes developmental perspectives of grief and loss, and practical ways of helping children and teens with grief.
Sometimes, families are faced with terrible decisions — their loved one in the ICU is brain-dead but on life support and a candidate for organ and tissue procurement. The tissue procured by one dead person can positively help over 50 individuals with body parts like bone or skin. Organs can help at least five persons in need. Many working in the hospital setting with these families could benefit from a thanatology degree that can help them do it better, leading to better outcomes for families and communities.
Colleges and universities across the United States and elsewhere offer one or more courses at the undergraduate level on death and dying. Often, a college will have such a course on the books but lack a faculty member with the knowledge and skills to teach it. Those with an MS degree in Thanatology are equipped to design and teach courses on death and dying at the undergraduate college level. Community colleges and mortuary schools are important examples of institutions of higher education that need qualified thanatology professionals to teach courses.
Many thanatologists engage in extensive community education. Some work with businesses and industries, offering seminars and educational presentations to management, human resources, and employees. Others work in senior centers, community centers, and faith communities to develop death education and community support around suicide prevention, advance directives, power of attorney for healthcare, and physician orders for life-sustaining care. To do this work well, community educators must have a solid theoretical and practical background in thanatology.
Students in thanatology programs view becoming a thanatologist to be a calling, a ministry, something they are passionate about – and so all who graduate from this program can and will actively extend the mission of Edgewood College’s core values of truth, compassion, justice, partnership, community, and action.
Here is a sampling of organizations and employment placements where a degree in thanatology can give someone an edge or can enhance the care given to individuals and families confronting the end of life:
The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) is the leading professional association in thanatology and death education. ADEC offers certification on two levels: Certified Thanatologist (CT) and Fellow in Thanatology (FT).
The Edgewood College Thanatology curriculum is aligned with the ADEC Essential Body of Knowledge.
THN 600: Introduction to Thanatology (3 credits)
THN 610: Applications in Thanatological Theory (3 credits)
THN 615: Family Systems and Thanatology (3 credits)
THN 620: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice in Thanatology (3 credits)
THN 625: Spiritual Dimensions of Care in Thanatology (3 credits)
THN 630: Ethics in Death and Dying (3 credits)
THN 635: Developmental Thanatology: Research Methods Across the Lifespan (3 credits)
Thanatology Comprehensive Exam (not credit-bearing, and there is no fee)
You will also choose 9 credits of electives as part of this program:
THN 701: Thanatology Portfolio (not credit bearing)
THN 702: Compassionate Cities: Movement and Mechanisms (3 credits)
THN 703: Developmental Perspectives in Thanatology: Children, Teens, and Emerging Adults (3 credits)
THN 704: Developmental Perspectives in Thanatology: Middle to Older Adulthood (3 credits)
THN 705: Hospice & Palliative Care at the End of Life (3 credits)
THN 706: Suicidology (3 credits)
THN 707: Suicide and Children, Teens, and Young Adults (3 credits)
THN 708: Traumatology (3 credits)
THN 709: Death and Grief in the U.S. Military Context (3 credits)
THN 710: Complicated Grief (3 credits)
THN 711: Death and the Creative Imagination (3 credits)
THN 715: Special Topics in Thanatology (3 credits)
THN 720: Field Experience/Internship (3 credits)
The Master of Science in Thanatology degree requires the completion of a total of 30 credits.
Tuition and Financial Aid information for master's programs.
Graduate students are eligible for financial aid in the form of Federal Stafford Loans. Learn more about Stafford Loans, including eligibility requirements and application instructions.
Our admissions and financial aid counselors have worked with thousands of students who have questioned how they could afford to complete their graduate education. We will use our experience to suggest creative solutions for financing your education. We work with students and organizations to manage tuition reimbursement plans, extend tuition discounts to various corporate partners in the region, offer third-party billing and monthly payment plans, and work with veterans to maximize their available aid.
Applicants to the Master of Science in Thanatology program will be required to have:
Janet McCord, PhD, FT, has been a thanatologist and suicidologist for nearly 30 years. She was mentored during her doctoral studies by Professor Elie Wiesel (Holocaust survivor, author, and international human rights activist); and Professor Edwin S. Shneidman (a psychologist who spearheaded suicide prevention across the United States beginning in the 1950s).
Dr. McCord has educated hundreds of master’s level students around the globe in graduate thanatology programs. Among her publications, she is the lead author of Chapter 18: Death Education (with Drs. Rebecca Morse and Norma Hirsch) in the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s (ADEC) Handbook of Thanatology (3rd Edition, 2021). She has served in various leadership roles in ADEC between 2011 and 2018 including President (2016-2017), and recently served for three months as Interim Treasurer (May 24-August 26, 2022) in support of ADEC’s transition to self-management.
She was invited to join the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement (IWG) in 2016 and embraces the IWG’s vision as her own: a world where dying, death, and bereavement are an open part of all cultures. Her research interests include the investigation of global and cultural perspectives of trauma, dying, death, grief, suicide, and loss, and the intersection of thanatology with literature and the arts. Death education is particularly important to her, and she has frequently been part of the Teaching that Matters panels for the ADEC annual conferences. She is in the process of designing a research study of death and funeral rituals among the Acholi and BaGanda peoples of Uganda.
She currently serves as a section editor for the Routledge Online Resources: Death, Dying, and Bereavement. She has several publications in books and journals, including a research article co-authored with a former student and fellow faculty member, published in OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying in 2020, a needs assessment for grief support after perinatal loss in rural Minnesota.
Dr. McCord has been invited to be part of a working group to draft a formal position paper on assisted death for the International Association for Suicide Prevention, to be presented at the 32nd World Congress in Piran, Slovenia in 2023. She recently became a member of the advisory board for PoMA (Peace of Mind Afghanistan), an international non-profit that specializes in delivering mental health and psychosocial support for at-risk populations, especially those who have experienced conflict or migration-related trauma. She is a Senior advisor to Hope North Uganda, a school and community education program for war-affected youth in Northern Uganda.
Dr. McCord is a regular presenter at conferences around the world including the Association for Death Education and Counseling; National Alliance for Children’s Grief; the International Conference on Death, Dying, and Bereavement; the International Association for Suicide Prevention; and the International Conference on Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society (held every three years).
She lives in east central Wisconsin with her family and relaxes by traveling, riding her horse Blu, gardening, and hanging out with her cats, dog, and assorted poultry.
Edgewood College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The Association for Death Education and Counseling is not an accrediting body but a professional association of thanatologists that has created, over the past several decades, a Body of Essential Knowledge. The program curriculum is aligned with the ADEC Body of Essential Knowledge.
The philosophy of the program is that dying, death, loss, and grief are primarily human experiences with medical aspects and not primarily medical events. The curriculum is designed to prepare individuals to create, implement, and provide non-medical support services for the dying and the bereaved, including suicide prevention and postvention support services and community death education.
The teaching philosophy we use across the curriculum is transformational and constructivist, an approach in which students learn through active engagement and ultimately construct their own knowledge. We use learner-focused teaching and mindfully incorporate cross-cultural and international perspectives because we know that attitudes regarding death are shaped by a variety of cultural crucibles that include language, family, the arts, media, previous experience, and many other things we encounter throughout life. In each course, we strive to develop effective communities of learners.
We take the notion of a “community of learners” seriously. For every Edgewood thanatology student who wants it, they will gain life-long mentoring from faculty who are well-connected in the discipline and who stay engaged with students long after they graduate.
At Edgewood College, our thanatology degree program is designed for working professionals looking to expand their career opportunities in the field of grief and bereavement. Upon completion of the program, graduates will be prepared to work in a vast range of career settings, each intended to support individuals and families confronting loss and grief. If you're interested in jumpstarting your career in the versatile and ever-developing industry of thanatology, request more information on our master's degree today.
There are many graduate programs that deliver master’s degree curricula in accelerated formats such as 7-week and 8-week terms.
Whether delivered as 7-week, 8-week, or 16-week terms, three-credit courses (according to the Higher Learning Commission and the Carnegie Unit) require students to spend a minimum of 135 hours of “time on task” — time spent on learning activities. This means that 135 hours are distributed across the number of weeks making up the period of enrollment.
At Edgewood College, the MS in Thanatology is delivered in 16-week semesters in Fall and Spring and 12-week semesters in the summer. The choice of full semesters is intentional: to promote “deep learning” and allow time for personal reflection and processing.
Deep Learning: Longer periods of enrollment have a better chance of resulting in deep and meaningful learning as opposed to surface learning. Deep learning promotes the examination of new information using critical evaluation and tying the information into existing cognitive structures. Along the way, students are encouraged to consider layers of meaning in the course and program content and to make connections between and among courses. This is done through interactive learning, critical thinking, and distinguishing between argument and evidence. In this way, students engage with ideas, concepts, and attitudes and explore the connections between and among course content. Spreading 135 hours over 12 or 16 weeks allows students the opportunity to reflect on course material even when not actively completing assignments.Personal Reflection: Because we have all confronted or coped with dying, death, and grief in our personal lives (experiences that sometimes draw us to become thanatologists), thanatology can be emotionally evocative. It is not like studying, say, accounting or geology — topics with little emotional investment but lots of memorization. When students are processing course content, they are sometimes also processing their own relationship with and experiences of dying, death, and grief. This takes time. Through constructivist and transformational learning, with the educator functioning more as a facilitator than authority (but also as authority), students can learn to reflect critically on their own assumptions, beliefs, values, habits of mind, and points of view. Often this leads to a shift in a student’s frame of reference — and it can lead to personal transformation.