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Department of the Study of Religions

Death and Religion

Course Code:
15PSRC162
Status:
Course Not Running 2014/2015
Unit value:
1
Year of study:
Any
Taught in:
Full Year

Cultural specific interpretations of death and dying are significant because they are intrinsically connected with prevalent conceptions of the self, the person, the body, and with definitions of life, and visions of the good life, which are transmitted through ritual and (oral) literature. Death and death rituals are central concerns of most cultural and religious systems. In his classical study on the representation of death Robert Hertz (1907/9) has pointed out that in many cultures death is not understood as a unique moment, but as an episode in a journey which integrates life and death. Death is generally depicted to be not the end of life. Nor are the dead entirely disconnected from the living. Students will explore notions of the meaningful life and the good death through the analysis of religious practices of voluntary death, martyrdom, and sacrifice, as well as rites of mourning and commemoration in selected traditions.

This course is intended to complement courses on individual religious and philosophical traditions in the Department of the Study of Religions. It will also be of interest for students interested in cultural aspects of medicine.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

The aim of the course is to provide students with a comprehensive overview of the principal themes underlying representations of death in contemporary and ancient religion, philosophy and medicine. Case studies and focused readings will introduce students to conceptions of death and the meaning of life in different religious and secular traditions.

At the end of the course students should have gained a comprehensive understanding of:

  • the complex variety of death practices and of the symbolism of death;
  • the meaning of life, and life-course models in the major religious and secular traditions.


Each student will have studied in depth at least two important cases.

Scope and syllabus

The first part of the course reviews the principal approaches and theories on death and religion in the academic literature (Hertz, Hubert & Mauss, Heidegger, Burkert, Girard, etc.), followed by a history of western attitudes toward death (Aries, etc.), and case studies on death and dying in modern contexts (Moody, Kübler-Ross, Hockey, Moeller, Firth, etc.). 

The second part of the course is devoted to the exploration of the concepts of death and the meaning of life in different religious and cultural traditions, with a focus on cosmology, concepts of the self, personhood, and the body, death rituals, and the social functions of cultural constructions of death. 

At the end of the course students should have gained a comprehensive understanding of the complex variety of death practices and of the symbolism of death, the meaning of life, and life-course models in the major religious and secular traditions. Each student will have studied in depth at least two important cases.

Method of assessment

Coursework: two 5,000 word essays (40% and 60%) Assessment: essays 100%

Suggested reading

  • Ariès, P. Western attitudes towards death from the middle ages to the present.
    Boston, 1974.
  • Bloch, M. & J. Parry (eds.). Death and the regeneration of life. CUP, 1982.
  • Bowker, J. The meanings of death. CUP, 1991.
  • Cederroth, S., C. Corlin & J. Lindström (eds.). On the meaning of death. Stockholm, 1988.
  • Cormack, M. (ed.) Sacrificing the self: perspectives on martyrdom and religion. OUP, 2002.
  • Coward, H. (ed.). Life after death in world religions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
  • Garces-Foley, K. (ed.). Death and religion in a changing world. M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
  • Hertz, R. Death and the right hand. Aberdeen: Cohen & West, 1907/1960.
  • Huntington, R. & P. Metcalf (eds.). Celebrations of death. CUP, 1991.
  • Reynolds, F.E. & E.H. Waugh (eds.). Religious encounters with death. Pennsylvania UP, 1977.
  • Wilson, L. (ed.). The living and the dead. Albany: SUNY, 2003.

Online course outline.