Defining death

Authored by: James L. Bernat

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Over the past sixty years, the definition of death has become controversial because of ambiguities in life status produced by life-support technology. Prior to the 1950s, death was a unitary phenomenon: when one of the three body systems vital for life (respiration, circulation, brain function) ceased, the others ceased within minutes because of their mutual interdependence. One did not need to consider if a person was alive or dead who had lost only one or two of the three vital systems because such cases then were impossible. Thus, before the 1950s, controversies about death centered not on its definition but on the medical accuracy of its determination.

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