Last semester I walked into a class that I had been petitioning to teach since I began at this particular school. It is a class on the dark and brooding subject of death. When I first talked with the department chair about this class, and about how I would bring a completely different perspective to the material, I actually had no idea what the class was about. Hubris, I know. I’d seen the name in the catalog and thought it would be fun to tell people I teach a class called Death and Dying. It is fun saying that, I admit it. I am a 40+-year-old woman, and the name sounds cool is a frivolous reason to want to teach a class.
In that meeting with my chair he gently but firmly informed me that he was quite content with the gentleman currently teaching the course. Last summer that changed. I was suddenly mired in the culture of death, grief, mourning, and more. I was going to bring in various cultures and how they approach sickness and death. I was going to show students how Freud’s oft-misunderstood “death wish” was alive and well. I had so many plans.
The reality, of course, is that I also had to find a textbook (or five) that allowed me to do all of that. And that was when I hit the wall. Had no one ever taught this course the way I wanted to? Was there no instructor out there who saw the ceremonial purpose of body tattoos that commemorate our beloved dead, and had a textbook made that showed pictures of them? And what about those “in loving memory” car tattoos that everyone drives around with? Wasn’t there a collection of essays someplace that had academics discussing the healing merits of such things? I did find some rather oddball books about zombie and vampire culture as outgrowths of our collective fear of dying. But the books were expensive, and the essays proved to be difficult to integrate into any other kinds of lecture. In the end, I went with a collection of essays that more or less outlines the historical development of the cross-cultural study of death utilizing essays and chapter excerpts by anthropologists, ethnographers, psychologists, folklorists, and other scholars. Mostly the students like the book. I’m constantly looking for supplemental materials, though, to fill in the gaps.
Is teaching this subject everything I thought it would be? Yes and no. I do enjoy telling people I teach it. They always give me a strange look and then shake their heads and some, the less timid, finally ask me what a class on Death and Dying really is. The reality of the class, though, is that it’s a lot of work trying to teach students that the universe isn’t made up of “us” versus “them” but is, instead, just full of a whole bunch of “we all.” Two days a week, for 18 weeks, I do my best to teach that. Some cultures seem scary at first, some are rather boring, while others are very involved with their death and dying practices. There’s intrigue and exotic locales and more politicizing around corpses than you might think.
Yesterday, two former students stopped by to say hello and update me on their transfers to four-year schools. As we were saying goodbye one of the young women – a smart and vivacious young woman who favors extremely tall hair styles and elaborate lip tints – said that she couldn’t get the class out of her head, even midway through a new semester. “I keep seeing death, rituals, and how people cope with it all in everything.” We laughed at that, but I think I can chalk that up to a win for me. After all, as Freud pointed out so long ago, the human body is moving inexorably toward its sure death, immortality is only, you see, a figment of the collective imagination. Every semester a few more students “get that” and perhaps see things a little more clearly in the big, bad world? Or not.