Understanding of Death and Mortality by Children
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, theory-like organization. More recently, children have also been viewed as apprentice theologians who adopt a spiritual or religious view of death. 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 will discuss the extent to which these two conceptions, the biological and the religious, co-exist in the mind of any individual child. I will describe research showing that such co-existence is found and indeed increases with age.