“You will die,” Professor Sarah J. Hart said.
Thus ended a class Zoom of Death, Dying & The Afterlife, a new course offered by the department of religious studies. The weekly assignments are based on questions such as “Would you whisper guidance to a corpse for 49 days?” and “Can we reconcile living in the present with the knowledge that we’ll die?” On Fridays we have optional grave cleaning sessions at the local cemetery, all designed to help students confront and cope with the knowledge that they, too, will die.
As in Petrarch’s time of the plague, the highly charged air encourages death talk beyond the scope of the readings, as any good discussion-based class should. Deaths in the family are mentioned, as well as the experiences of older people who remember 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Cannibalism has been brought up twice to the disgust of the professor. Only one of them was me.
Prep-wise, students can expect around an hour of reading per class. The class is broken into four sections- The classics, such as Hamlet, The Odyssey, and Keats. It is succeeded by death’s denial, the first stage of grief as penned by Dylan Thomas and Keats. We enter a more modern, gritty take in acceptance and Its injuries with death doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and portrayals of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The final four weeks are perhaps the trippiest as we discuss intimations of immortality. Not necessarily true immortality, but what we leave behind and why our society needs death in spite of our fear of it.
And do we really fear death? Death is commonly portrayed as humanity’s greatest fear, and yet we see presidents such as Gerald Ford survive two assassination attempts and refuse to be shut in the White House for protection. We fear other things more than our fear of death, but we don’t examine this fear. We don’t challenge it, because death is inevitable. This class allows students a safe space to challenge that irrational fear.
“Death makes me sad and fearful,” student Jacob Hummel said. “My hope is that by furthering my understanding in any way might help to reduce these feelings or offer an understanding as to why I view death the way I do.”
Some views of death are more comedic, including takes on the death of religion if we stopped dying without explanation. Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions” was met with enthusiasm from several students wishing to read more of it. In it, Death takes a holiday and human reactions vary, from general happiness, to worry over death and religious industries, and the horror of families with loved ones in comas that can neither wake up nor die.
More zealous students may be satisfied by the decent amount of poetry analysis. Vincent Milay wrote of an “unhappy planet born to die” decades before Silent Spring. How did she know? What did she see in the man who “shone an hour… And like the sun went down into the sea, Leaving no spark to be remembered by.”
Eco death returns with Katrina, as we watch a first person account of the terror and death. Our protagonist, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, filmed herself, family, friends and dogs as they waited for and witnessed the storm. It is interspaced with dry news coverage that doesn’t reflect the realities of the people trapped in it, as well as mentions of Bush’s war and his reluctance to pull troops into hurricane aid.
What will students gain from taking such a class?
“I have no agenda,” Hart said. “My hope is that students will be a little more comfortable approaching death as part of life, as approaching dying as an inevitability for all of us.”
With death, there is also the legacy of the dying to consider. Why did those before us die, and what are we going to be known as when we die?
In the words of student Joan Esquibel, “Death is fascinating not because of the act itself, but the productions that are formulated in its wake. Its anonymity allows for beautiful pieces that we project our own feelings towards. These works are something worth understanding for myself and as an honor of their creators who are long gone, taken by their muse.”