Commentary: `Death is having a moment’ in academia

We live everyday with the signs of death’s inevitability: aging bodies, decaying buildings, dead flowers. The everyday-ness of death, or what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “living with death,” is always with us and, yet, also is somehow kept in the background as we go about our daily routines. Our own deaths in particular are events that, under normal circumstances, we try to put off for as long as possible.

And then there are deaths that are not “everyday” in quite the same way, the kinds that result from illness (physical or psychological), war or natural disasters. Approaches to the causes and kinds of deaths that humans have faced throughout history — be they medical, environmental, social or political — are essential variables in a wide range of academic disciplines, spanning the humanities, social sciences, arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Courses in “death studies” have become extremely popular on university campuses while the recently founded “Death Café movement” is bringing people together in cafes around the world to foster “an awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

As Erika Hayasaki, assistant professor of English at UC Irvine, puts it, death is “having a moment.”

These trends are only the most recent examples of the ways in which humans have tried to face up to their mortality, as opposed to denying or simply ignoring it. Beginning with the Epicureans’ maxim that “death is nothing to us” (dated to the 3rd c. B.C.), extending to the wide range of beliefs in an afterlife and culminating in contemporary debates over end-of-life decisions, the simple fact that we will all die is freighted with the most complex philosophical, moral and ethical questions.

These are expressed in contemporary debates over the worth of an individual human life, the efficacy of capital punishment, appropriate manifestations of grief and the question of what is worth dying for, among many others. Underlying these debates is the irony that the human quest for immortality, expressed in a wide variety of literary, philosophical, historical and material culture forms, is contingent upon death’s certainty.

As a classicist, my own recent work has been concerned with the ways in which the ancient Greeks faced death. Last summer, I convened a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute for college and university teachers in Athens, Greece, during which participants explored ancient Greek literary, philosophical, medical and material responses to death’s certainty. While walking among the tombs in the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, it became clear that mortality — defined as the history of facing death — ought to be a recognized field of academic research and teaching.

With this idea in mind, I recently convened a workshop on “The History of Mortality: Interdisciplinary Approaches” at the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) in Irvine. With the support of the Institute and its director, Professor David Theo Goldberg, a group of faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral scholars representing six UC campuses came together to discuss the myriad ways in which facing death determines who we are and how we live. The group included scholars working in performance studies, Islamic history, Native American studies, game theory and medical humanities, among others.

Over a day and a half of intense discussion, participants explored a wide range of topics: views of the afterlife in Native American eschatology, the effects of randomized clinical trials in cancer research, the resurrection of avatars in computer games, competing forms of Islamic burial practices, film as a medium for confronting death, and the phenomenon of near-death experiences.

In the course of these discussions, several topics emerged that transcended our disciplinary specialties. These included the equation of death with failure, the question of what constitutes a premature death, the idea of non-human mortality, the place of hope in times of physical trauma and the ways in which the creative arts guide our beliefs about death and the afterlife.

These discussions confirmed our sense that the history of human mortality is a rich but as yet-unrecognized area for research and teaching across the disciplines. As an extension of the workshop, I will be directing a residency research group at the UCHRI in fall 2015. The residency will be an opportunity for scholars and graduate students to further refine our understanding of what it means to live with death.

KAREN BASSI is a professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz.