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Open Thanatology

Open Thanatology is the Open University’s interdisciplinary research group for the study and education of death, dying, loss and grief across the life course. Formally renamed in 2020, the group builds on the long-standing death and dying research group at the university with a renewed energy to promote these fields of research and education. The group is currently led by Dr Erica Borgstrom and you can follow our Twitter account (@openthanatology) for latest updates. The links on this page give more information about the academics in the group, several of our projects and publications, and a range of resources.


About the group

Death, dying and bereavement has been a major research and teaching theme at the Open University for over 20 years both within WELS and across other faculties. Our research covers theoretical and practice-related dimensions across end of life care and death, including reproductive and neonatal loss, bereavement and memorialisation. Our work is theoretically driven and aims to inform both theory and practice spanning the arts and social sciences, professional practice, caring, and education.

Our research is recognised for its academic excellence and ability to inform health and social care policy and practice. We have strong links with our local hospice – Willen Hospice – as well as other clinical and third sector partners. We have, for example, collaborated with the Department of Health in England to explore the end of life care needs of older care home residents. We have also worked in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support to develop learning materials to improve the quality of end of life care. Our work on sexuality and life-limiting conditions has led to the development of national guidance which has informed policy and practice and, since 2016, has been endorsed by the Royal College of Nursing. Members of the research group are regularly consulted on a wide range of policy and practice-related issues as well as public knowledge exchange and for media requests. For REF2021, we had a number of impact case studies related to our research and public engagement.

We are committed to educating people about dying, death and grief. We have an innovative Death, Dying and Bereavement module, which was the first flexible learning of its kind to address the challenging area of death, dying and bereavement, as well as end of life care. This can be taken as a standalone module or part of a degree. Via OpenLearn, we have a wide range of free videos, articles, interactives and short courses related to our research and public education topics. Through the OU-BBC collaborations we also consult on a range of prime-time and internet-based video content, including documentaries like A Time to Live and short films for BBC Ideas.


A bit about the name

Open represents both the Open University and highlights how we are open to make our work more accessible, a topic of discussion, and seek to bring others in and work with a wide range of people. Thanatology is the study of dying, death, bereavement, related losses and grief. It is interdisciplinary and covers the wide range of topics members of the group research.

As part of relaunching in 2020, Dr Borgstrom hosted a name competition which generated approximately 50 suggestions and lots of group discussion. The term thanatology is not widely used in the UK (more commonly found in Europe, USA and Australia) but was chosen for how it captures the breadth of topics covered by the group.