Two different research programs have addressed children's developing conception of death. On the one hand, children have been viewed as apprentice biologists who come to view death as an inevitable part of the life cycle. According to this view, which can be traced back to Piaget, children's cognitive development moves toward an objective understanding. Piecemeal observations are increasingly coordinated into a coherent, theorylike organization. More recently, children have also been viewed as apprentice theologians who adopt a spiritual or religious view of death. Indeed, some investigators have suggested that young children are naturally disposed to assume that certain processes continue after death. Others propose that children increasingly understand and endorse the particular claims about the afterlife that are characteristic of their community. In either case, this more recent research assumes that children's developing conception of death cannot be characterized in exclusively biological terms. It embraces various transcendent elements.
I argue that each of these programs makes an important contribution to our understanding of children's ideas about death. What is needed, however, is research on the extent to which these two conceptions – the biological conception on the one hand and the religious conception on the other – coexist in the mind of any individual child. I describe two studies showing that such coexistence is found and indeed increases with age.
CHILDREN'S UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH: FROM BIOLOGICAL TO RELIGIOUS CONCEPTIONS
This book examines different conceptions of death and their impact on children's cognitive and emotional development. It not only addresses practical and clinical issues related to children's developing understanding of death, but also focuses on theoretical and philosophical aspects linking children's concept of death to religion, morality, politics, and law. The material is drawn from a wide range of disciplines including psychology, anthropology, philosophy, medicine, education, and the law. This collection will be useful for courses in developmental psychology and clinical psychology, certain education courses, and philosophy classes – especially in ethics and epistemology. It will be of particular interest to researchers and practitioners in psychology, medical workers, and educators (parents and teachers).
The first three chapters of the book examine children's conceptions of death in different cultures. All three chapters focus on how children acquire a biological conception of death as well as how they acquire spiritual or religious ideas about an afterlife. Chapter 1, by Rita Astuti, provides an ethnographic account of how Vezo children living in a rural community on the western coast of Madagascar experience animal and human death. She describes how Vezo adults conceive of death and the life of the ancestors, how Vezo children are protected from ancestral threat, and how, as spectators to the rites and rituals that surround a death, Vezo children nevertheless construct an understanding of the ancestral afterlife.
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