The research literature about ‘brain death’ is largely characterized by biomedical, bioethical and legal writing. This has led to overlooking wider but no less pertinent social, historical and cultural understandings about death. By ignoring the work of other social and clinical colleagues in the study of dying, the literature on the determination of death has become unnecessarily abstract and socially disconnected from parallel concerns about death and dying. This has led, and continues to lead to, incomplete suggestions and narrow discussions about the nature of death as well as an ongoing misunderstanding of general public and health care staff responses to brain death criteria. This paper provides a sociological outline of these problems through a review of the key literature on the determination of death.