Thanatology? You ask, dear Reader. It is a real thing, I promise. My accountant accuses me very often of being creative, but I did not just make that up.


If you don’t believe me, this is what the Oxford dictionary says:


thanatology (noun) – the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.


In today’s blog I am simply going to share some random information, facts and trivia in no particular order or relevance. I want to chat about aspects of death that are not depressing or spooky, but just interesting. We are all born, and we all die. Both of these moments are profoundly sacred and yet we only celebrate and talk about the one.



1) Let’s start again with Thanatology. So Thanatos is “death” in Greek which comes from the Greek mythology where Thanatos was the god of death. He sounds gentle and kind (unlike our Grim reaper which looks rather appalling with his sickle). Thanatos had a twin brother, Hypnos, who was the god of sleep. (Where do I sign up for that job?) However, here is where things take a turn for the worse –  these poor twins did not have great siblings. Their immediate relatives include the gods of doom, violent death, blame, misery, indignation and strife. Sounds like a dinner party with your in-laws, right?


2) The deadliest day of the week is apparently a Monday. More people die on Mondays than any other day. (I get that. In Zulu the direct translation for Monday is “unravel”, so dying clearly agrees).


3) The deadliest time of day, according to a palliative nurse, Sr Sheryl with whom we work, is “stupid o’clock”: the time of day at which it does not suit anyone. We find that most people die in the early morning hours, and so does research. Studies suggest that this is due to changes in the physiological functions during the night such as decreased heart rate and BP which makes it harder for the body to recover. It is also blamed on factors such as lack of medical resources and staff during these hours (in other places obviously ).


4) A common question is what people most die of. There are not great statistics for SA, but according to the WHO (World Health Organization in 2019 ) the most common cause of death is Ischemic heart disease (which is a fancy word for saying that due to your coronary arteries narrowing, your heart is not functioning properly). However, for people who are poor the highest mortality rate is the result of neo natal disease! That puts things in perspective doesn’t it? Poor people also die of HIV/AIDS, road accidents, diarrheal diseases, malaria, cirrhosis of the liver and TB, whereas the affluent, first world guys tend to die of strokes, Alzheimer’s, COPD (like emphysema ) cancers, hypertensive heart disease and diabetes.  We live in different worlds. The rich have bad diets, awful stress but good health care. The poor, almost exactly the opposite. I of course suspect that the cause of my demise will  be dying of embarrassment one day= because I have no filter and only realise once I’ve said things that I should rather have kept quiet.


5) The next interesting trivia is at what age people die. In SA, according to a 2020 World Bank review, the average age of death is 65. I am sure it would be vastly different if we were able to see the different socio-economic stats. In the US, the average age of death is 77, in the UK 80, in Japan 86 and the country where people die the youngest is the Republic of Central Africa where they tend to die at age 53!


6) The deadliest month is January in the northern hemisphere and July in the southern hemisphere (but the stats are based on first world countries here).


7) In South Africa there were 38 285 more deaths in 2021 (when the big COVID-wave hit ) than 2022. This could be because of the virus, or rather the way the government handled COVID, in my very unqualified opinion.


8) Another interesting fact is that hearing is the last sense to go when we die. So, keep on talking to your loved one even if you think they are long gone.


9) People often ask me what people’s last words are. According to a study of 2000 patients in a hospice in Buffalo NY, the most common last words were “I love you”. According to the study, most last words were relational. Words like: “thank you” and “forgive me” were also frequent. We had a lovely gentleman whose last words were “Can I have a Coke?” (he was not a diabetic, but that would have been quite funny) and one gentleman’s fabulous last word was the F-one.


10) Souls come up often when we talk about end of life. I liked this story about a guy in 1907 named Duncan McDougall. He was a physicist who claimed that the human soul weighs 21g. He did a few, very flawed, very unscientific experiments, by weighing patients before and after death and came up with the rather strange hypothesis that our souls have a physical weight even though it is invisible.


11) Still on souls, some people believe in souls and some people don’t, but what is agreed upon is that your personal belief in this regard will have a big impact on your life and decision making.


12) Random truth, as stated by Alie Ward: “Death makes life beautiful. Life means something because it will end.” I thought that was quite wise and have not thought of it that way before.. If life were infinite, it would not mean so much would it? It is precisely because of its fragility and finitude that it is so precious.


13) It goes without saying that people are scared of death, or maybe we simply fear the dying process. We worry about whether it will it be sudden, whether we will suffer and when will it happen? What I found fascinating is that, according to thanatologist Cole Imperi, where religiosity is involved, people are more afraid. My faith truly takes the sting out of death, but many fear the judgement of a cruel Old Testament God that will send you to hell, or a reincarnation as a pauper or dung beetle, or maybe we fear that there is nothing after death and we are in fact not spiritual beings. I think it is so nuanced, but in the end, we do fear everything that brings change and threatens our status quo. We like the control, but with death we don’t know when and how it is happening. We just know it is going to happen to us and to all we love, leaving us totally vulnerable.


14) Another thing both death doulas and thanatologists work with is wills. I did not know there are so many wills (I think of that silly joke, where there is a will… I want to be in it). I have witnessed many awkward moments of plain aggression, terrible desperation and conflict with our end-of-life patients aroundgreedy family members and their wills. Here is a list of different wills for your info:



– There are traditional wills, also known as simple wills, where there is an executor and they do the distribution of assets.

– There are living wills in which you specify what medical interventions and medicines you allow to keep you alive

– There is also a nucaptive will – I sound very clever but I’d never heard of that before, and it is just actually an oral will or something that you told people. I am sure those billionaires do not rely on this method when the blonde bombshell marries them at age 98.

-A pour-over will is a surprisingly simple word for a complex testament with trusts and financial structures.

– A holographic will means you wrote it in your own hand (that will be a problem for me as I write like a drunk spider)

– A joint will in which two or more testators (another new word for me) do their estate planning together.

– Then here is a nasty one, a will in solemn form. I gather that this is where the court gets involved and has to prove whether the will is valid or which will is valid.

– A Mystic will is the best and I kept it for last. It is where the will is kept in secret. I hope at least someone knows where it is, otherwise the mystic will, will turn into a plain MISSING will.


15) Thanatology also studies different burials. I learned that there is a thing called a sky-burial. At first I thought they throw the body out of the plane but actually, people just leave the corpse on a mountain top for the elements to sort out. They do this in Tibet. Don’t worry that you are going to come across a corpse on your next hike in the Berg.


16) Cremation is gaining popularity all over the world (although in my experience, not so much with our black brothers and sisters) but recently one of our guests had an aquamation which was brought to SA by none other than Bishop Tutu. It is a new process which is kinder to the environment, in which the body is decomposed using alkaline hydrolysis rather than fire.


17) People often ask me if end-of-life patients see their loved ones or stare off into the distance into the next life. One of our patients kept seeing butterflies. Many guests speak to people we can’t see, and some appear to be very confused. I have read that scientists claim this is because the pineal gland (nicknamed the “third eye”) which is in charge of our sleep-wake cycle, produces dimethyltryptamine (DMT) just before we die, which has a powerful psychedelic compound and is why the dying often appear to be tripping.


18) If you enjoyed reading this blog, you can actually go and get a four-year bachelor’s degree in thanatology, or there is now a new thing called Thanabotony where people study the significance of plants and the bereaved and try to understand plant usages as it relates to the process of dying.



19) Some weird people believe that the closest we get to death in life is during orgasm (I want to die writing this as my mother reads this blog).


20) More people die from mishaps while trying to take selfies than from shark attacks, and on the topic of social media, LOL which we now understand to mean “laugh out loud”, in telegraph code often stood for “loss of life.”


When I started this blog, it was going to be about something profound as I reflected on how privileged we are to work in this field and how our end of life patients and their experiences give us a unique perspective about not just death, but life, and choosing to live it to the full, but then I got side-tracked with trivia, so here we are. Don’t waste time with any more “trivial” things today. Go and do something life-changing and memorable while you can.






The Last Stages of Life