Language of Death

by Royal W. Rhodes, Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies

You must be the Death Man.

The comment, from a Kenyon mother, startled me. Were my invisible scythe and hourglass showing? Then I realized she was talking about my class, "Meanings of Death," which her two sons had taken. The mother told me that when the boys' grandfather died, the younger son took charge of arrangements for the devastated family and spoke about the class at the funeral.

Who would have thought, the mother observed, that a liberal arts course could be relevant!

The course, which I've taught for more than two decades after inheriting it from a former colleague, is not intended to provide therapy or train certified thanatologists (who work with the dying and bereaved). I tell my students that it is a course about language—about how all cultures over time try to construct meaning for something that slips beyond meaning.

I want them to explore how religious and nonreligious people encounter death and dying, and how they shape the human imagination, using myth, ritual, art, psychology, and other means in coping with change, disorder, and the troubling break in the patterns of our vulnerable existence. Readings range from the Epic of Gilgamesh and Dante's Purgatorio to E. Kuebler-Ross's On Death and Dying and John Hersey's Hiroshima.

Is the course relevant? Perhaps in a less direct but wider sense than the students' mother had in mind.

Studies assert that young people have little familiarity with death, beyond the unreal images on TV and in video games, and thus take foolish risks with their lives. What I have found is the opposite.

When I ask each class, which at times has numbered over a hundred, if someone close to them has died, most hands shoot up. And when I ask if anyone has been physically present when someone died, many hands have also been raised.

This may be a case of self-selection: those who have felt death close-up want to find some way in their education to ask how others have put together the broken pieces. But even if this is the case, I'm struck by how these young people—"golden lads and girls"—willingly delve into the readings and discussions.

Their elders, caught up in their own fears or from protectiveness, rarely venture with them into this forbidden zone as mentors and companion pilgrims. This is the fear that dare not speak its name, insulated by euphemisms. We say: They passed, no longer with us, in a better place now, rather than simply, directly: They died.

One of my students had, in fact, died. He had been officially declared dead, and then was revived. Classmates were all over him with questions: Did he see a light in a tunnel? Did he hover over his own body? Did he recognize any figures or voices?

None of these happened, he said, thus disappointing those captivated by popular tales of near death experiences. But we all noted how obsessively he kept perfect control over every move he made, and every word. Other students related their own obsessive efforts in diet, exercise, hygiene, and sexual habits to retain control, fooling death in order to linger a while longer.

A key assignment in the course is designed to allow the students to own the experience of death and dying more directly. They have to write two eulogies: one for themselves (written as if by someone who knew them well) and one for a parent, sibling, or friend to whom they are closest.

The only limitations I impose are (1) that they cannot write about someone ill or already dead, and (2) that the cause of death is the impact of a wandering meteor. I added these provisions because I noticed a palpable, widespread distress among the students: they feared that talking about a specific individual's death would jinx the person. So much for the profile of the modern, rational, nonsuperstitious scholar.

In undertaking this assignment, students have talked about the issues they face in writing: deep feelings often left unspoken with loved ones, the practical plans for funerals and burials, the recognition of gratitude—not only the grief, but also the grace notes in facing unutterable loss, as well as the reflection that each death is like the burning of a great library, never to be recovered.

Students also complete creative projects, crafting what is for them an authentic and powerful language of death. One rewrote, as a children's story, an ancient epic quest for immortality. Some groups have designed alternative sympathy cards, or death masks, or tombstones (for professors!). And others use painting, poetry, or film.

In these many voices, they are asking what it means to be human—addressing, through their reflections on death, the mystery of what life is. I was especially delighted once when a group asked me to star in their film. But then they told me the character I would play.

Time to dust off the scythe and hourglass.

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