Death brokering: constructing culturally appropriate deaths


Address for correspondence: Stefan Timmermans, Department of Sociology, UCLA, 264 Haines Hall, 375 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1551 USA


Death brokering refers to the activities of medical authorities to render individual deaths culturally meaningful. Social scientists and others agree that mortality provokes existential ambiguity in modern life requiring cultural coping mechanisms. In contemporary Western societies, medical professionals have sequestered the dying in institutions, and have classified the causes of death to explain suspicious death. Over the last decades, the institutionalisation of the dying process has been challenged by social movements and the sudden onset of some deaths while forensic medicine has struggled for professional legitimacy in the borderland between mainstream medicine and the legal system. I argue that medical death brokering persists in spite of challenges because medical experts offer increasingly flexible cultural scripts to render the end-of-life socially meaningful while accentuating death's existential ambiguity. Medical professionals help create the ambiguity they promise to resolve, reinforcing the cultural need for more expert death brokering.