As the old saying goes, “There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.” The idea of death is complex and invokes many questions and emotions; death, mourning, and celebrations of life also are observed differently around the world.
During Hill’s H-Term, the Rev. Anne Confer Martens ’02, the Rev. Khristi Adams, and Dr. Katherine Erickson led the course, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the World’s Religions,” which explores the world’s religions with the hope of reaching a deeper understanding of views about death, rituals around grief and mourning, ways of remembering the dead, and wisdom about how to live.
Nimala Sivakumar ’23 took the class with the hope of gaining a better understanding of a topic she regards as “universally scary” and one which she had an admittedly limited scope of. But, as scary as the concept can be, Sivakumar also regards it as one thing that every person has in common.
“No matter one’s race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, death is the one thing that unites us and being able to study it in such an open manner truly interested me,” Sivakumar explained. “I hoped it would ease some of my anxiety about the topic as well.”
Her favorite topic of study is the process of grieving and mourning in the world’s religions; through her study of different religions, Sivakumar learned about the practice of the Tana Torajans, who coexist with the dead for up to years after the actual physical death, which she cites as the most surprising thing she has learned as it is drastically different from what is experienced in the United States.
Tyler Gofus ’09, supervisor and funeral director of Houck and Gofus Funeral Home in Pottstown, was a guest lecturer one day. According to the Rev. Confer Martens, Tyler was invited to speak to their students “as a way of helping to demystify death, at least in a very practical sense. The more we can learn that death, grief, and loss are not some secret or shameful part of life but rather natural components of human experience, the healthier we will be.” Tyler spoke candidly about his work with people of different religious and cultural backgrounds and the challenges of his work during COVID-19.
Below is a Q&A with the Rev. Confer Martens about the course.
Why did you want to create this course?
When we were asked to submit proposals for H-Term courses, our thoughts were drawn toward topics in our various Religious Studies classes that garner student interest but aren't given thorough attention due to time and content constraints in a year-long course. And, in a practical sense, living in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought all of us, including our students, into closer contact with death and mortality than any time in recent memory. We were very inspired by Dr. BJ Miller's opinion piece in the New York Times from December: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/18/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-death.html.
As we planned the course, we also wanted to focus on how learning about death can help us to think about how we want to live. For example, on the second day of the course, we read a poem by Mary Oliver called "When Death Comes," and Dr. Erikson asked the students if they thought this poem was more about death or more about life. We've found ourselves coming back to this same theme over and over again.
Excerpt from the course description: By exploring the world’s religions, we will reach a deeper understanding of views about death, rituals around grief and mourning, ways of remembering the dead, and wisdom about how to live. We will investigate teachings from diverse religious traditions while also working with sources from literature, history, film, and current events. As students consider the topics and issues raised in class, they will investigate these claims and will be able to articulate their understanding of their meaning for their own lives.
Were you inspired by a similar course one of you took/read about somewhere else, or did you design it on your own together?
We consulted syllabi from other courses, and each of us has taken courses that touch on some of the material in our course, but none of us had taken any kind of year-long or intensive immersion course prior to designing this course together. We worked together to design a course that is consistent with our department's objectives of exposing students to a variety of religious and philosophical teachings and traditions and giving them the opportunity to consider and evaluate those teachings for their own lives.
How did the three of you decide to teach this together?
As the three full-time teachers in Religious Studies and Philosophy, it made sense for us to collaborate since we could all contribute in terms of content. We have different backgrounds and teach different courses, so we were excited to work to bring our strengths and interests together into one course. And, it's pretty rare for Hill faculty to get to team-teach in a sustained way, so we jumped at the chance to do so.
What resources will you be using in your course?
The course is divided into four units, and each includes theology, history, literature, poetry, visual culture, history, film, and current events.
When the 6-week H-Term has concluded, what do you hope your students take from their time spent with you?
As I said above, we believe strongly that a course about death has much to say to us about life. As BJ Miller writes in the article linked above, "Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks." And, he argues that facing death invites us to contemplate questions like, "What is it you hold dear? Who are you, or who do you wish to be?" Our hope is that our students will find resources and languages to begin contemplating these questions in our course and will continue doing so after these six weeks come to an end.