to have dignity means to have worth or merit. it means to have the same value, esteem and importance. people lose dignity in certain situations. when a person is accused or found guilty or known to do something that is very wrong in the eyes of society then they are said to lose dignity. a good example of loss of dignity is when a student is held in great esteem for being very knowledgeable and smart and then is caught cheating. it's a shameful situation where the student looses dignity with fellow students. this should not be a concept that is unknown to you, yatyu, as asians, particularly the chinese, have a great sense of maintaining their dignity.
when someone gets ill, particularly with a terminal illness such as cancer, one of the many thoughts that goes through the patient's mind is that of how others are going to perceive them and their place in society. since i married into a family of chinese i know only so well what the effect of a diagnosis of a terminal illness has on the patient and the family. there is an overwhelming shame that comes upon the person. i've seen it happen several times in my family. the patient wants to isolate themself from everyone so as not to offend them. other members of the family and friends will shun or avoid seeing this person. the patient's self-esteem goes to it's lowest point.
now, some who might be responsible for the care of a patient in that position might not feel that the sick person needs much of any help anymore. after all, they are doomed to die. i've heard of some stories where the patient was hidden away in a room from everyone. they just sort of disappeared to live out their last days in a situation that was totally different from the way their life once was.
to give someone a dignified death, is to treat them with as much respect and honor as is possible. probably the biggest thing terminal patients face is the loss of their regular daily lives. if we can give that back to them, then we go a long way toward maintaining their dignity. so, many times i have heard patients, who have been told they are terminal, say they just want to die at home or be with their family. they want to be around the people and things that are the most important to them. to facilitate that for them is to help give them a dignified death.
here in the united states we have hospices that help people accomplish just that. they help people maintain their self-esteem and dignity by getting them back into their homes and teaching their relatives what they can do to help care for the patient and keep them comfortable as they go through the process of dying. in the end, a person's body is often going to fail. people will sometimes lose control of some of their body functions and even their cognitive abilities. to give them a dignified death is to do for them what they are no longer able to do for themselves in order to maintain their self-esteem and value in their world. those are things like giving them as much privacy in the performing of their self-care, keeping them clean of incontinence, helping them to breathe if they are having breathing problems, keeping them free of pain, having friends over to visit, dressing the person in their favorite outfit or engaging them in a game they love to play. in general, you help them to adapt and function within their world while maintaining their self-esteem. you try to keep their daily life as normal as possible by making adaptations where necessary to accommodate the physical and mental failings. this, yatyu, is a concept that is at the very heart of the profession of nursing--helping people maintain their dignity--whether is be while they are in the process of dying or dealing with an illness.
to answer your question of where to start. . .i would start by reading about hospice and hospice care. if any concept is devoted to the concept of dignified death, it is hospice.