Death and Dying in the Western World

3 credits


Religious Studies
College of Arts and Science

Death is a topic most Americans wish to avoid. Once we were very familiar with it since people before the mid-19th c. usually died at home, their bodies mourned at home, and then buried either in a designated public space or on their property (especially in the South). Today, most people die in hospitals or medical-oriented institutions (like nursing homes). Because death is so hidden (even disguised) most of us have never seen a dead body except in film or on television and those bodies are often a result of an exceptionally gruesome, yet highly staged death. Hidden death in everyday life has led to the fact that most Americans are unfamiliar with death and even outright afraid of it. People unconsciously treat death, the process of dying, and grief as a sort of infectious disease. However, death surrounds us both personally and collectively and this means that the living and the dead do not exist (and have never existed) in completely separate realms. This class explores how death has historically been approached in the Western world and familiarizes us with different types of death (natural death, death by execution, death from illness, and death by murder). Using a religious studies and American studies approach we will examine overarching themes of grief, loss, mourning, and even anger in association with death and dying.