Life and death are a central topic for religions and religiosity. This study examines the conceptions, distribution and consequences of alternative religious ideas and practices with regard to dealing with dying in Switzerland.

Lay summary


In Switzerland, with the far-reaching changes in the religious landscape, the significance of alternative religious concepts and practices is increasing steadily. The main characteristics of these alternative forms of religion are their emphasis on the individual, its world affirmation, its scepticism towards the concept of a personal God and religious institutions, as well as its reference to “spirituality” rather than “religion”. This study examines these forms of religion with regard to end-of-life care by focusing on six case studies including a hospice for the terminally ill and dying, two palliative care units, an anthroposophic medical hospital and a conventional medical hospital that both offer palliative care as part of their primary health care.



Centring on that stage of life when all agents act on the assumption that the patient's death is imminent, the study examines the significance of alternative forms of religion for the health care facility, its staff and for the terminally ill and dying. The relevant agents - and their experiences, needs and challenges - are investigated using ethnographic methods, qualitative interviews and text analysis.



The study provides new insights on the consequences of alternative forms of religion in end-of-life care. Amongst other, it proves that, in addition to physicians and nurses, alternative and complementary therapists make an important contribution when it comes to alternative religious concepts and practices at the end of life. Irrespective of their ideological and/or religious affiliation (to anthroposophic medicine, for example), they provide room for religious meaning and action beyond the conventional provision of end-of-life care. It shows that this form of religious/spiritual care often takes place without the use of language, whereby the various sorts of religious/spiritual references remain implicit. Thus, most of what happens in this regard is bodily oriented. This, however, may create a need for language-oriented forms of treating terminally ill and dying patients. Here, the study shows that whereas anthroposophic medical physicians, for example, more likely feel and prove to be open to conversations about religious/spiritual topics, less alternatively socialized agents (such as nurses or conventional religious healthcare chaplains) often lack the specific semantics or even the willingness to provide for these sorts of needs.