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Allegorical representation of death - tomb in the north cemetery (Wiesbaden)
The human skull is a symbol of death worldwide .

The death (like English to the of Germanic dauþus ' death 'and dawjan , die') is the end of life or (as a biological death in a living being ) the final failure of all life-support function processes . The transition from life to death is called dying , and death that has occurred is also called exitus letalis . The Greek name is Thanatos , the Latin Mortus .

Difficulty of definition

The difficulty of a definition that is valid for all living beings can be illustrated by the examples of the death of protozoa and death of mammals . In the first case, death is defined either by the irreversible loss of cell integrity ( lysis ) or the irreversible loss of the ability to divide cells (through the destruction of the genome ), in the second case by the irreversible disintegration of vital organs such as the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system ( brain and spinal cord) ), which in turn is triggered by the death of the individual cells. Dying is a process and the occurrence of death can rarely be assigned to an exact point in time. Death is the state of an organism after the end of life and should not be confused with dying and near-death experiences that are part of life.

Death as a biological phenomenon

The biological reason for natural death - and aging - is suspected by scientists in the mechanism of evolution : If a living being has successfully passed on its genetic material (are the offspring capable of survival), then the genetic material continues in the offspring. Events that become effective after the last successful transmission of genetic information to the relaying organism, have no direct effect on the gene pool of the kind . As a result, factors can accumulate in the genome that determine further life after successful genetic transmission without being exposed to selection pressure. These include hereditary diseases that only break out at an advanced age , such as Huntington's disease, a nervous disease . According to the theory, these “genetically untidy corners” cause old age. Experiments with certain species of sea ​​cucumber show that death from old age does not have to be inevitable : These have been kept alive for decades without any signs of aging. The prerequisite for the complete suspension of selection is that there is an age from which reproduction is no longer possible. This is often not the case with living beings that reproduce by budding . According to this theory, these should potentially be immortal .

However, after the genetic transmission, two factors can bring about selection pressure on genes that affect the time of death: With many living beings, it is the parents' responsibility to raise their offspring. If the parents die during this period, the chances for the survival of the offspring and thus also for the passing on of their genetic material to the next generation decrease. On the other hand, an extremely long survival after reproduction or even after the loss of reproductive capacity would mean that there is less space and resources for the offspring in their habitat . In this regard, the death of the parents is useful and necessary for the offspring.

From an evolutionary point of view, a rapid succession of generations has the advantage that a faster adaptation to changed environmental conditions is possible: Changed selection pressure can then quickly lead to a change in the gene pool. This is countered by the fact that longer development and life spans (time spans for reproduction) are required for more complex living beings.

Causes of death

“Duke Friedrich Wilhelm on his deathbed” by Mathieu Ignace van Brée , painted one day after the Duke's death in the battle of Quatre-Bras .

Causes of death are dealt with in medicine in the epidemiology department . There are common, rare, and gender-specific causes of death in humans. The mortality expresses the probability of dying from a disease. In a narrower sense, when death occurs, a distinction is made between tangible causes , on the one hand, and psychogenic factors derived from the respective circumstances of the death of a person are discussed, which should appear as the cause of death.

The proportion of fatal (fatal) cardiovascular diseases , accidents and injuries is falling. In Germany, the rate of deaths caused by cardiovascular diseases and so-called external causes fell significantly between 1990 and 2004. The mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases decreased between 1990 and 2004 for men by 38.2 percent and for women by 33.1 percent. External mortality decreased by 32.7 percent for men and 40.1 percent for women. In contrast, cancer mortality decreased by only 15.8 percent in women and by 18.7 percent in men. In 2011, 40.2% of deaths in Germany were due to cardiovascular diseases and 26% to cancer.

The transition from life to death

The process of dying is the transition from life to death. The exact line between life and death is difficult to define. The further one is from the border zone between the two, the clearer the difference between life and death seems, the closer one is to the border, the more blurred it becomes. In this way, living beings that are already in cardiac arrest can sometimes be successfully resuscitated (see also near death experience ). Likewise, not only individual cells and tissues, but also the spinal cord (as part of the central nervous system) can react to external influences during the “intermediate life” many hours after the occurrence of brain death . Here, too, the definition of a “time of death” depends on the way in which it is defined.

In humans, it is usually the job of a doctor to determine death. For organ removal for organ transplantation , death is defined as brain death. The certain signs of death are used to determine final death .

The death of people from a legal point of view

Legal definition


There is no legal definition of death in German law. The transplant law requires for an organ from a human (among other conditions) cumulatively the death of the organ donor ( § 3 para. 1 no. 2 TPG) and the final unrecoverable failure of the overall function of the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem (total brain death, Section 3 (2) No. 2 TPG). The legislature has thus not made a definition of death, but merely stipulated total brain death as a necessary condition for organ removal. In legal practice, however, death i. S. d. Section 3 (1) no. 2 TPG means total brain death. In most cases expressly based on transplant law, the case law also falls back on total brain death as a definition of death in other areas of law in cases of doubt.

The death must be reported to the competent registry office on the third working day following the death at the latest with the submission of the death certificate ( Section 28 of the Civil Status Act ), which will notify the death and issue a death certificate . According to § 29 and § 30 PersStG, roommates of the apartment in which the deceased lived and heads of institutions, clinics, homes, if the deceased died there, are obliged to report .

The dead human body is a corpse that is in need of care for the dead . There is no ownership of a corpse, only appropriation rights. Those responsible for caring for the dead are obliged to carry out the funeral in accordance with the funeral law of the federal states . The heir is obliged to pay the funeral costs according to § 1968 BGB .


The Swiss Transplantation Act of December 2003 defines in Art. 9 Clause 1 the death of a person as the “irreversible failure of the functions of the brain, including the brain stem”.

Inheritance law

The exact time of death can play a role in questions of inheritance law . A person's legal capacity ends with death , even if post-mortem personal rights and certain other protective rights (e.g. in the form of confidentiality ) continue.

Forensic medicine

In order to solve crimes as well as questions of inheritance , the determination of the cause of death or the determination of the time of death is important. This is the task of forensic medicine .

Cause of death

In the case of the - at least from a medical and scientific point of view - concrete causes of death, an attempt is made to differentiate between violent and non-violent causes of death. This rough subdivision is referred to by the officials responsible for the investigation with the term type of death and knows the possibilities natural and non-natural . The designation as unexplained indicates an incomplete (sometimes provisional) test result. A “cause of death” that is ultimately determined after the death of an individual is a reconstructive formulation that is the result of a careful classification of the individual observations available into an empirical framework, which is the better the more observations are available.

The formulation of causes of death can be subject to errors : for example insufficient examination of the deceased or misunderstanding of causal relationships. The specificity - Paradox is also a not rare issue: Just because a particular observation was particularly well documented, it is not the sole reason the most important factor in the pathophysiological process of dying. The investigation of the cause of death requires, depending on the specific question, an external examination of the corpse , an autoptic opening of the corpse and a toxicological investigation with the question of poisoning. The question of poisoning by drugs such as alcohol or medication or by other substances can usually not be answered with an exclusively external examination.

Which investigation steps are indispensable for establishing a cause of death depends on the one hand on the public claim to the result of the determination of the cause of death and on the other hand on the specific circumstances. There are types of events that should not be overlooked in the interests of the administration of justice; this includes killings , neglect, medical malpractice , accidents as a result of technical defects, accidents as a result of irresponsible behavior; and we know of notifiable infectious diseases , the presence of which can sometimes be established after an official examination has been completed.

The officially prescribed strategy for investigating the causes of death therefore also differs from one legislature to another. At least is appropriate

  1. routine toxicological testing of blood and urine,
  2. the routine inspection of the external body surface and
  3. the routine examination of the previous death circumstances and Auffindesituation with every death by
  4. trained personnel.

Without good reason, none of these four areas of importance for the investigation of causes of death should be left out. It is therefore not surprising that legislation that does without one or more of these four areas that are important for investigating causes of death can lead to surprises.

Time of death

Forensic medicine has various methods available to determine the time of death or the time in which the corpse was laid . The assessment of rigor mortis and corpse marks give rough guide values ​​(onset of rigor mortis after 2-4 hours, full expression after 6-8 hours, resolution after 2-3 days). One of the most accurate methods is the determination of the core body temperature , which is used to calculate the cooling time, taking into account the outside temperature, the body weight and the circumstances of the location. Insect larvae are also assessed to determine the time of death. From this, forensic entomology , a special field of research in forensic medicine , has developed.

In philosophy and religion

Four basic philosophical attitudes can be distinguished on the consequences of death for the affected individual:

  1. Death is the final end of the physical-organic and the active, physically ascertainable spiritual existence of a living being (e.g. total death theory )
  2. Death is just a phase that eventually leads to a new individual life ( reincarnation through reincarnation )
  3. Death is the irreversible transition into another state of being (continued life in a realm of the dead , afterlife , resurrection , heaven , immortality ). a. life after death
  4. Life and death are indifferent (in some mystical directions , like in zen )

Different views in religions and philosophical directions are dealt with in the article Life after death ( see also near death experiences ).

Post-death contact and medium

Some believe in post- death contacts or that a medium can establish contact with deceased people. This so-called mediumism is particularly widespread in England, Wales and Switzerland.

In England and Wales, media appear in many churches. In Switzerland, many media outlets have their own practices, appear on large stages and on television and work with the police on investigative work, among other things.

Reception, dealing with death in society

Childlike impartiality when dealing with the subject of death

Dealing with death is difficult in today's society, so there are only a few terms as many synonyms and mitigating terms as for "death".

Dealing directly with death has become rarer, as it often no longer occurs with the family or in the midst of companions (such as in war or in the event of a disaster), but is then taken over in clinics and the corpse is then taken over by funeral directors .

Cultural sociological approach

The social approach to death depends heavily on whether a culture denies or affirms “death” as a fact. You emphasize one of the two possibilities that are psychologically present in every single person, because on the one hand he learns credibly already in adolescence "All people are mortal" and on the other hand he has the inner conviction that he is alive until the threshold of serious illness or old age always on.

If a culture denies the finality of death, then the living have to reckon with the continued work of the deceased, they may have to fear to adjust to their own physical death in order to optimize their other kind of continued life. For example, to avoid punishment for guilt in this world in the hereafter . Correspondingly, such cultures develop concepts of physical or ghostly survival, rebirth, eternal life and corresponding customs and rituals , such as housed burial forms , ancestral cults , sacrifices and intercessions .

If a culture denies any further life in this or the other world, i.e. if it regards death as final - like the ancient Greeks Hades - then its members are entirely reliant on shaping their here and on influencing their continued life in this world, especially for her memory of looking after her after- glory in the strongest case . Customized customs and rituals can also be found here (memorial tombs , regular commemorative dates, memorials ).

Psychoanalytic approach

Here we work with the opposition and effect of the sexual and death instincts in each individual. Both urges cannot be lived out, so they have to be suppressed less or more. This happens not only consciously, but also unconsciously - predictably given the strength of these urges. Accordingly, death is repressed or processed in such a way that it recedes into the preconscious and only bothered people occasionally in everyday life. But it does not disappear completely, but becomes noticeable in habits such as regular fearful prayers , dreams or neuroses .

How much impulse suppression seems necessary, in turn, depends on the culture - from the prevailing affirmation of death (as heroic ) to the prevailing denial of death (as Höllenangst ).

Research and science

Several sciences deal directly with death and, in connection with it, the dying and bereaved:

The death of humans is also part of the research area of ​​death research and there in particular the near death experience .

In literature and art

Deceased lovers , painting by an unknown artist from the Upper Rhine region, around 1470 ( Strasbourg , women's shelter museum )
Hans Baldung Grien : "Death and Woman" (1518–1520)

Often death is personified in literature, for example

Death is a central theme for Thomas Mann , already in his early stories ( The Path to the Cemetery , The Wardrobe ), but especially in Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain .

Death is also a central theme in the works of many other authors, such as B. in:

In the performing arts, the transience of life is represented with the help of various vanitas symbols . Death is often shown as a skeleton with a scythe ( grim reaper ) or skull . The scythe is used to separate the soul from the body.

The fact, the year or the date of the death of a person but also the extinction of an animal or plant species is often represented, especially in Christian-dominated cultures, with the character cross †. For miners and closed mines there are crossed "hammers" with the hammer heads pointing downwards. Scouts know the circle symbol with a bold point in the middle with the general meaning as a floor sign "I have done my job."

In everyday language

Dead camel thorn
tree in Sossusvlei

The death of people is often a taboo subject . Hence, all languages ​​have euphemistic expressions to describe death. Often these are expressions that instead of the finality of death emphasize a transition into a potential afterlife . In the German language are euphemisms like leaving , demise , death , going home , Dormition , the last trip to take common. Regionally, “to be recalled” (to Christian God) is also often used. A person dies in particularly painful circumstances, it is also called perish or colloquially even from croak , scrape off and die to the inhumane circumstances to emphasize his death. A soldier who has died in combat is called a fallen soldier .

In addition, there are many casual expressions such as “give up the spoon ”, “ bite into the grass ”, “ walk across the Jordan ”, “ walk across the Wupper ”, “look at the radishes from below” or “bless the temporal”. Other names for death, which indicate a more familiar way of dealing with it, are: Boanlkramer , Freund Hein , Schlafes Bruder , Gevatter Tod , der Schnitter or Hein Klapperbein.

The death of non-human beings is usually described with specific expressions: killed animals were euthanized , they died or died , they were eaten by animals or slaughtered by people , also slaughtered , they were killed by hunters . In the case of plants , the name is: they die or perish .

Direct representations of death as a being are also Boanlkramer , Charon , Dengelgeist , Shinigami , Davy Jones' Locker or Angel of Death .

Depending on the underlying view, there are different ideas about what happens after death: purgatory , limbo (theology) , particular judgment , life after death , reincarnation , hell

Film documentaries

See also

Portal: Death  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the subject of death


Web links

Commons : Death  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikiquote: Death  - Quotes
Wikisource: Death  - Sources and Full Texts
Wiktionary: Death  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Friedrich Kluge , Alfred Götze : Etymological dictionary of the German language . 20th edition, ed. by Walther Mitzka . De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1967; Reprint (“21st unchanged edition”) ibid 1975, ISBN 3-11-005709-3 , p. 780.
  2. Ekkehard Grundmann (ed.): Introduction to general pathology and parts of pathological physiology. 5th edition. Stuttgart / New York 1985, pp. 4-6.
  3. Cancer on the rise
  4. ↑ On this Franz Borkenau : End and Beginning. About the generations of advanced civilizations and the emergence of the West . Foreword and editor Richard Löwenthal . Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 3-608-93032-9 (with a critical treatment of Sigmund Freud's central theses on the “ death instinct ”).
  5. Sigmund Freud : Jenseits des Lustprinzips , 1920.
  6. ↑ go over the Jordan. on:
  7. ↑ go over the Wupper. on: