Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Sherylyn Briller


This study investigated sudden death as a social act and a ritual process (Hertz, 1960) in an urban hospital emergency department (ED) in the United States. An analytical auto ethnographic approach was utilized by the author who is a nurse-anthropologist and a bereaved parent. In sudden and a more "prepared for" death, the dying person goes through a rite of passage van Gennep (1960[1909]) and enters into an area of liminality Turner (1967). A key transition from life to death occurs and crossing a threshold where the dying person cannot cross back. The aims of the study were to: 1) Identify and describe the meaning of social rituals to families and healthcare staff involved in sudden death events, 2) Discover the organizational culture and power structure involved with the formal and informal rituals in a sudden death and 3) Analyze the data collected regarding the social rituals and organizational culture in sudden events in an urban ED in the U.S. to contribute to the anthropological literature on death and dying and ritual processes. In a yearlong ethnographic study, these research activities were conducted: 1) extensive participation observation in the ED setting, 2) twenty in-depth face-to-face interviews with staff members who worked with families experiencing sudden death events and 3) ten in-depth face-to-face interviews with eleven family members who experienced a sudden death event. All interviews were audiotaped, transcribed and analyzed for themes. Findings included identification of ritualized activity by hospital staff in sudden death events despite the lack of official policy in this area. Staff and families' stories about the ritual process as the sudden death event progressed in the ED were analyzed in terms of six key properties of secular rituals (Moore & Myerhoff 1977). The stages of the ritual process analyzed in detail included gathering in the ED and coming together for the death ritual, the transitional social time of becoming dead in the ED, leaving the ED and re-entering society as a mourner and final rituals. It was concluded that the ritual process overall gave structure and meaning to staff and families involved in sudden death events.