Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

The Good Death


We often discuss what makes a “good life” – that is a life worth living, a life exemplary of one’s values and ideals, a life full of meaning. But what makes a “good death”? Far from being a topic to avoid, ideas of death – what it means, its variations, how it relates to the preceding life, how it should unfold – are rich topics in religion. For many religious people, the question of how life is lived in preparation, anticipation, or ignorance of death is quite central. So, how do religious people imagine what death is and what lies beyond? What guidance exists for the time of death and its aftermath? How is the body understood in relation to death and beyond – and how is it managed? How do the living coexist with the dead in various forms? How do changing ecological and technological concerns shape death practices in the USA and elsewhere? In this class we will explore conceptions of the good death through a variety of religious traditions and perspectives, looking at issues such as the after/next life, death rituals, burial practices, corpses, the holy dead, martyrs, ghosts and spirit guides, and others.


This discussion-based seminar assumes no prior knowledge of any religion or other perspective on death. While there will be brief lectures in most classes to lay groundwork and flesh out concepts, most of the class will be driven by student questions and reflections, including in-class presentations by students on a death tradition or practice of their choice. Readings will come from a variety of disciplines, religious traditions, non-religious thought systems, scientific and experiential approaches, and others. We will also engage with film, podcasts, and other multimedia sources. It may be at times difficult for personal or intellectual reasons to engage with some of the materials, but everyone is expected to be respectful, involved, and do their best throughout. The main requirements involve careful reflection on the course materials and guest speakers through weekly response papers, a presentation, and a final project.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Anna Bigelow

"A great deal of my research takes place at tomb shrines dedicated to Sufi Muslim holy people. Though these are spaces of the dead, they are also vibrantly alive with not only the spirit of the sainted dead, but all the living visitors who come to pray for their own needs and concerns. These are social spaces, where the living greet the dead and one another and imagine possible futures free of suffering or with greater comfort and spiritual strength. Studying these spaces has brought me to think about how death is located quite differently in different societies and time periods. As a graduate student I was a teaching assistant for a course on religious approaches to death, and it was a very moving as well as fascinating course that I have thought back on many times during my research and teaching career.

"I joined Stanford in fall of 2019 after many years at NC State. My areas of specialization are Islam, South Asia, the Middle East, comparative religions, religion and material culture, and secularism. I just finished editing a volume about Islamic objects and am starting to think about one more specifically related to death. Though death is a very serious subject, I also do not believe it should be avoided or cannot involve humor and joy. I hope this class will be an open space for all kinds of explorations into the vast and intriguing world of death."