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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.