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Morbid fascination: teaching the history of death.


The history of death is rarely, if ever, taught as a course despite increased attention from researchers. The article discusses the author's experience in designing and teaching a freshmen history course on death and dying. The article includes sample assignments and readings as well as samples of student evaluations and an explanation of the rather surprising results.


"Death waits for no man", "Nothing is certain except death and taxes", "eternal death"--these well-known aphorisms reflect the timeless and final nature of death. If history can be defined as the study of change over time, then death seems to fall completely outside of its purview. From these phrases, it would seem that for many death marks the line between rational inquiry, the basis of academic study, and subjective experience. Prior to World War II, there were only a handful of disciplines for whom an understanding of death played a significant role. Archeologists have long studied it, as funerary artifacts and practices are often crucial remains of long ago civilizations. Anthropologists, too, have theorized about the different cultural meanings of death for other societies and how that reflects on their worldview more generally. For quite a while, though, even health practitioners who had to deal with dying people on a regular basis did not discuss death. That changed in 1956, when a psychologist named Herman Feifer organized the first inter-disciplinary conference on thanatology, or death studies. He invited many people to the conference, including philosophers, physicians, and psychologists, but not historians.

In the United States, the subject of death and taboos against discussing it jumped into mainstream discourse in 1969 with the publication of physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying, which sharply criticized modern attitudes towards the dying. In this charged atmosphere, Phillippe Aries, a French historian, published a slender volume entitled Western Attitudes towards Death in 1974. The book, based on a series of lectures given at Johns Hopkins University, covered over one thousand years of history in a little over one hundred pages, but asserted the startling hypothesis that perhaps our attitudes towards death, too, depend on historical context and that perhaps history may suggest alternatives to the pathological attitudes vividly argued by Kubler-Ross. He followed the publication of the lectures with a much longer, more in depth study, The Hour of Our Death, three years later, but even he acknowledged that the project was a "book that never ends" and that much more could, and should, be said on the subject. (Aries, Hour, xii). The conclusions of his work were the subject of a great deal of controversy, but it cannot be denied that he introduced the subject of death into the realm of historians.

But not the history classroom, at least not as a primary focus. More courses are incorporating funerary customs, memorials, and other markers of death practices into their lectures and reading lists, but none seem to focus exclusively on the historical development of western attitudes towards death, in the sense that Aries used it. Since the late 1970's, there has been a veritable explosion of interdisciplinary death education courses, aimed primarily either at health practitioners and/or adult learners. (Cook, 185) Initially, instructors feared that taboos about discussing death would adversely affect enrollments but most reported that the opposite was the case. Extra classrooms, extra sections, and extra seats had to be found for nearly all of these pioneering courses and adult education theory expanded accordingly to promote the incorporation of life experiences into educational opportunities. (Farmer, 110) While this can be documented in the case of adult or continuing learners, the impact of death education on traditional undergraduates remains controversial. Researchers have yet to reach consensus on the goals of death education and therefore a widely-agreed upon instrument for measuring its effectiveness does not exist. (Simpson, 140) Discussing death could clearly make a course enticing and popular, but what did it help students to learn?

My task was to create a freshmen-level humanities course, incorporating history and literature, to fit into a liberal studies/general education curriculum at a medium-sized regional comprehensive university. I knew from experience that most of the students considering enrollment in the course would have no interest or background in history or literature. I chose to create a course entitled "Death and Dying in Western Civilization" in order to capitalize on the apparent drawing power of including a taboo subject, death, in the title and subject matter. It was my intention to use ideas and representations of death to trace larger historical changes, to teach skills of historical interpretation, and to promote lively and engaging classroom discussions. Normally, when creating a new course I look for existing syllabi to use as organizational templates or for overall inspiration. Death in a history course was apparently uncharted territory, however, so I had to lay out the course from the ground floor.

The course title was very broad and the first challenge that I faced was finding ways to limit the material so that it was not overly general or superficial. My own background in European history led to the first cut, the decision to limit the material largely to western history. Because I was using death to teach history (not the other way around), I felt that limiting the course geographically would promote a more coherent picture of long-term historical change. Western civilization was still quite broad, however, and included many different national, religious, and ethnic traditions. Rather than explore the history of death and dying in particular regions or cultures, I chose instead to divide the course into thematic sections which corresponded roughly with chronological divisions.

The first section of the course covered ancient traditions and the attitude that death could be overcome either through passing tests (ancient Egypt), proper moral and ethical decision making (Hinduism and Buddhism), careful study of hidden universal forces (Occultism); or human determination (ghosts and the undead). The second section introduced the concept of death as a point of judgment and moved into the Christian era. The section began with histories of the concepts of heaven and hell and then examples of different types of judgment, including the doctrine of satisfaction (which punished sins according to the nature of the original transgression), the juridical condemnation of suicide and finally the creation of international law condemning genocide. The third section dealt with commemoration and aspects of grief including funerals, obituaries, cemeteries, and war memorials, from roughly the Victorian era to the present. The fourth and final section explored the origins of modern attitudes towards death, from ambivalence to morbid fascination, covering such diverse topics such as existentialism, serial killers, murder ballads, and hospice.

This division had the added advantage of permitting me to concentrate on a different method of interpretation in each section, which I simplified in my course objectives as death as object, place, idea, and symbol. In the first section, students read and interpreted myths, legends, fables, and traditional stories. For example, they examined several sections from the Book of the Dead and, after a brief overview of the meaning of key hieroglyphics and the pictorial tradition, they had to interpret the different stories to extrapolate the different stages in the path to the afterworld. I reinforced this lesson by using an interactive website which allows the user to make choices on the path to the judgment of Osiris. Two guest speakers complemented this section, an anthropologist who discussed ghosts and a local self-professed ghost hunter who argued that there was scientific proof for the existence of spirits from beyond. The two opposing perspectives permitted the students to draw their own conclusions about ghostly phenomena.

In the second section, the students examined legal documents. In the past twenty years, there has been a small flurry of books on the history of suicide in late medieval and early modern Europe, a subject that had previously been virtually untouched (MacDonald and Murphy). Most of them attempt to reconstitute suicide through the use, in whole or in part, of judicial records which showed suicide punished as murder (it was common practice to put the bodies of suicide victims on trial). I took out a number of exemplary cases from these texts and had the students read them (without the verdicts at first). Holding a mock trial, I had the students determine their own verdicts and then compare them to the historical ones. The subject then broadened to include a discussion on their ideas about why people commit suicide. I gave them an overview of Durkheim's typologies of suicides and had the students try to apply them to historical and recent cases. The flaming question was, have the reasons people commit suicide changed over time? We did a similar exercise for genocide. After reading the official UN definition of genocide, they examined several historical cases (Cathars, Witches, Native Americans) and several recent controversies (Ukraine, Armenia, Rhwanda). I divided the students into two groups and asked one group to prove that the case was genocide and the other to argue that it was not. The session ended with a discussion on the morality of genocide and the issue of whether or not the official definition needed revision.

In the third section, the students studied physical objects and placement. We compared different forms of commemoration across time, from obituaries to funeral customs. Most of the time, however, was spent on 'reading' cemeteries and tracing the changes in cemetery design and placement over time. Other instructors have had great success with action projects about death so I organized a field trip for the students to see a local historic cemetery and to apply their skills to the placement of graves and grave symbols there. (Hymovitz, 9). Another guest speaker spoke of recent developments in the archeology of late antiquity and the Middle Ages and what sites such as Sutton Ho and Troy tell us about an era commonly known as the dark ages and about the authenticity of the few remaining literary accounts we have from that time.

In the final section, we looked at objects of popular culture, including movies, music, magazines, and comic books. I assigned Art Spiegelman's graphic comic book Maus and used it not only to talk about the Holocaust, but to have the students think about using a medium such as a comic book to talk about something as serious as Auschwitz. We visited a local morgue and funeral home to see the scientific advancements in mortuary science. We read literature that is deeply critical of modern attitudes towards death, notably Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. We watched images, commercials, videos, and more that glorified and reveled in gristly, morbid, or sensational depictions of death. The very last lecture, the denouement, was a history of hospice and an overview changing attitudes towards palliative care in recent years. One of the students, himself a hospice volunteer, provided personal stories about exactly how people die today and he discussed books such as The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Overall, the course gave them multiple perspectives on modern attitudes towards death and allowed the students to critically and historically evaluate Kubler-Ross and Aries' challenge.

The latter outline represents my aspirations for the course, but it remains to be seen how well I fulfilled them. Teaching death is not like teaching just any historical topic. In most of the literature about teaching death, the overarching question is whether or not death education has any advantages over personal experience. (Cook, 185). Many comparative studies have not been able to show significant advantages to formal death education, especially in a lecture format. (Durlak, 58) I intended to side-step this issue, as my course used death to examine history and so therefore was not directly relevant to personal understanding or experiences of death. It was my thought that the course would use attitudes towards death to trace broader changes in world views, making the individual contemplation of death unnecessary because our concern was with long-ago populations. In other words, by looking at death historically, I thought we could look at it objectively as well.

There were other reasons for approaching the topic this way. Just prior to the start of the course, University administration cautioned me to stay clear of personal experiences of death as it could lead to lawsuits over emotional distress. In order to make sure that students would know what they were getting into, I prepared an introductory lecture where the most sensational images and ideas flashed relentlessly across the screen. I warned them that the course was not for the squeamish nor for the closed-minded. The syllabus contained a clause about subject matter that could be upsetting and what to do if you felt that way. I divided the written work into a portfolio arrangement so that students who were not comfortable with some assignments, such as the visit to the morgue, could substitute other assignments. Not a single student dropped the course.

Formal evaluations of the course took the form of an open-ended written form and a shorter form where they ranked various aspects of the course, including guest speakers and field trips. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, but they also contained an element I did not expect. Despite my efforts to get away from impacting their personal experience and understanding, their comments suggested that they found that to be one of the most valuable aspects of the course. The format gave them a historical perspective, but also a personal perspective that most felt enriched their lives in some way. It is my intention to try to apply a more formal measure of this surprising element the next time the course is offered.

Sample Comments:

The best aspect of the course was the fullness of perspectives we examined and the diversity therein--my perspective on the subject was certainly more enhanced and more comforted.

As time went on, I saw that the [classroom environment] was open, accepting, and nonjudgmental, one of the instructor's prime considerations. At the end of the semester, I saw how forthright, open, and tolerant of other's deeply held beliefs all of the students had become.

The best aspect of the course was the open-mindedness of the lectures. I enjoyed the wide variation that was taught.... we were able to experience things that you don't get a chance to do in other courses.

This class aided in personal understanding of death.

It was entertaining, educational, and, believe or not, an antidepressant

This course opened a way to converse my views with people who wanted to talk about death and dying.

The way the class is treated makes sense to me because the study moves from the past acceptance to our lack of acceptance today. The way everyone was able to make it personal is also great: personal stories, ideas and random thoughts were always acceptable that made the class so much more than just a school course.

Talking about death is a widely held taboo in modern society, or so the theorists say. That taboo contributed to making this course initially popular but it also laid at the basis of its effectiveness as a vehicle for personal and intellectual development, both for the students and the instructor. This course has been one of the most satisfying teaching experiences that I have ever had. Some of my ideas worked better than others and much of its success can be attributed to the unintended consequences of allowing students to draw their own conclusions from historical examples in a supportive classroom environment--not necessarily my lectures. Still, this was the rare occasion where teaching goes well beyond the subject matter and reaches into places I never expected it to go.


Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Philippe Aries, Western Attitudes Towards Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990.

Alicia S. Cook, Kevin A. Oltjenbruns and Laurel Lagoni, "The "Ripple Effect" of a University Sponsored Death and Dying Symposium" Omega v. 15(2), 1984.

James A. Farmer, Jr. "Death Education: Adult Education in the Face of a Taboo" Omega 6 v. 1 n. 2 (1970), 109-113.

Joseph A. Dudak, "Comparison between Experiential and Didactic Methods of Death Education," Omega 9(1) 1978, 56-65.

Leon Hymovitz, "Death is a discipline: the Ultimate Curriculum" Social Science Record 15(3) 1978, 5-17.

Robert Kastenbaum and Ronald Koenig, "Dying, Death, and Lethal Behavior: An Experience in Community Education." Omega 6 v. 1 n. 1(1970), 29-36.

Michael McDonald and Terence Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Michael A. Simpson, "Studying Death: Problems of Methodology," Death Education 4, 1980, 139-148.

Douglas K. White, "An Undergraduate Course in Death" Omega 6 v. 1 n.3 (1970), 167174.

Laura Cruz, Western Carolina University

Laura Cruz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University who researches attitudes towards death in the early modern Netherlands
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Author:Cruz, Laura
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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