The term "science of death" appeared at one time in ancient Greece. Socrates even said that "philosophy is a practice of death". However, although death has been viewed as an important subject in many fields of cultural studies, a science of death in the strict sense of the terminology has not come into being due to the lack of a rational and sophisticated methodology as well as an organic combination of theoretical speculation and empirical research. Up to date we have not even succeeded in coming up with a relatively comprehensive conception of what death means, even though we can find a variety of explanations of death in such disciplines as philosophy, religion, sociology, psychology, biology and medicine. Accordingly, we need synthetically take the concept of death into account.
Although Confucius asked such question as "how could we understand death without understanding life?" Chinese have never ceased to probe into the issue of death. In the long tradition of Chinese thought, from Zhuang -zi's philosophical speculation of death to the modern culture of death, from the religious experience of the Taoist transcendence to the Buddhist meditation upon death, Chinese have always attached great ethical concerns to the issue of death. In the Chinese language, there are at least 150 words and phrases referring to death. From the Chinese ethos of death we can find the ultimate concern of life, the common concealment of death, the unvarnished mood of fearfulness as well as profound calmness in the face of death. As a matter of fact, death education in western sense of the word has become a popular social practice in current China.
There is no doubt, death of a human being means not only the end of a human biological life but the end of a social and spiritual life. Establishment of ethics of death (part of which is ethics of care for the terminally ill) is indispensable for the development of our ethical concern about the dignity and meaning of human life. This paper clarifies the necessity and importance of our understanding of human death as a social and cultural phenomenon by analyzing the materials of social anthropology and clinical observations of death experience. It indicates that although death experience is often considered painful, sad and fearful, it probably also implies some positive psychological aspects such as hope, serenity and even euphoria. The arousal of these positive aspects of death is of great significance for maintaining the dignity of dying patients and increasing the quality of their lives.