Core Modules

module 1 | Activity 1: Dying and death in 21st century Australia

In the 20th century, Australia, like many western nations, witnessed dramatic changes in terms of:[1-3]

  • Life expectancy
  • How people were cared for when they were dying
  • What they died from
  • Where they died.

Compared with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries, Australia has the eighth highest life expectancy at birth for males and the fifth highest for females. [4, 5] Children born in contemporary Australia can expect to live until their mid-eighties, approximately 30 years longer than their 19th Century counterparts.[5, 6]

Australia today has an ageing population who are more likely to die from chronic illness.[5] The figure below presents the top five causes of death in Australia in 2017.

Leading causes of death in Australia

Figure 1: Leading Causes of Death in Australia (2017) – adapted from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [2]

These data contrast with data from  a century ago, where death in Australia was typically quite sudden and the leading causes were:[3, 8]

  • Infections
  • Accidents
  • Childbirth.

The life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is approximately 10 years lower than other Australians. The leading causes of death in this population include:[7, 9]

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Respiratory disease.


In 2017, there were 160,909 deaths registered in Australia. Of these approximately 120,000 (75%) were “expected”.[5, 10]

Expected deaths include those related to many of the life-limiting illnesses that are common causes of death in Australia.[11] The term ‘life-limiting illness’ is used to describe a wide range of progressive and advanced conditions (eg, Heart failure, renal failure, motor neurone disease, various cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease etc) where it is expected that death will be a direct consequence of the specified illness. Many people living with these illnesses will benefit from the provision of palliative care.[12-17]

  1. Think about how death is depicted in the media. Consider television, movies, books and social media.
    •  Choose an example and describe:
      • Who is dying?
      • Where are they dying?
      • Why are they dying?
      • Who is involved in the scene?
    • In what ways are media depictions similar or different to your own experiences or observations of where and how people die and how they react to death?
  2. What historical events and developments have been most influential in shaping attitudes and beliefs about dying and death in developed societies in the 21st century? Consider:
    • Scientific advances
    • Information technology
    • Health care developments, reforms and policy
    • Demographic changes
    • Consumerism
    • Social media
    • Mass deaths.
  3. Some commentators argue that modern Western society is ‘death denying’ or ‘death avoiding’. Provide at least two examples that would:
    1. Support this argument
    2. Contradict this argument.

    In responding to this question, consider:

    • Any personal experiences you have had in working with or caring for someone with a life-limiting illness
    • Whether you are comfortable (or not) to talk about dying and death and why this is the case
    • Your knowledge of how healthcare resources are allocated and what society prioritises
    • How the media portray dying and death and healthcare in general.
  4. Life expectancy is determined by a range of factors (e.g. age, gender, health, lifestyle choices and where we live), which can be used to determine the average age at which we are likely to die. Access an online life expectancy calculator (provided by various organisations and life insurance providers) and consider your life expectancy.
    • The Death Clock provides a simple calculation based on your answers to six questions.
  1. Strazzari, M., Ageing, Dying and Death in the Twenty-first Century, in Second Opinion. 2005, Oxford University Press. p. 244 – 264.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare., Deaths in Australia. 2019, AIHW: Canberra. Retrieved from 
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Changing Patterns of Mortality in Australia, 1968-2017. 2018, ABS: Canberra.
  4. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Health at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators. 2019, OECD Publishing: Paris.
  5. Australian Institute of health and Welfare, Leading causes of death. 2019 2019, AIHW: Canberra.
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Deaths in Australia. 2016, AIHW: Canberra.
  7. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Leading Causes of Death. Causes of Death, Australia, 2012 2012  [cited 2015 January 19]; Available from:
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: 2015. 2017 09/06/2015 [cited 2018 27/06/2018]; Available from:
  9. Laverty, M., D. R McDermott, and T. Calma, Embedding cultural safety in Australia’s main health care standards. Vol. 207. 2017. 15-16.
  10. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Cultural Diversity in Australia. 2016 Census Data Summary. 2017  April 2018]; Available from:
  11. Palliative Care Australia, Background Report to the Palliative Care Service Development Guidelines, prepared by Aspex consulting Melbourne, Editor. 2018.
  12. Palliative Care Australia. What is Palliative Care A4 Brochure. 2015  [cited 2019 January 23]; Available from:
  13. Palliative Care Australia. What is Palliative Care? 2015  [cited 2019 January 23]; Available from:
  14. Palliative Care Australia. National Palliative Care Standards. 2018; 5th Edition: Available from:
  15. Palliative Care Australia. Palliative Care Service Development Guidelines. 2018; Available from:
  16. Rome, R.B., et al., The Role of Palliative Care at the End of Life. The Ochsner Journal, 2011. 11(4): p. 348-352.
  17. Murray, S.A., et al., Palliative care from diagnosis to death. BMJ, 2017. 356.