Religious Studies 381

RELN 381: Religion and Death

Prerequisite: 3 hours in Religious Studies

Credit Hours: (3)

Religion and Death critically examines a significant dimension of religious life. Death, the great unknown, awaits us all. One of the chief functions of religions is to ease the anxiety and pain of being mortal. How and how well is this accomplished? To answer, students will explore supernaturalist treatments of death across cultures and time—e.g., funeral rites, descriptions of hell, ghost beliefs, and Near-Death Experiences.


Detailed Description of Content of Course

The course is designed, first, to expose students to specific expressions in an important area of religious life; and, second, to guide them in critically assessing the performance of religions in addressing a disturbing universal condition.  This is accomplished through the following progression.

1. Students-young adults in a culture that glorifies youth, health, and unending self-development-are apprised of unpleasant biological facts.  Mortality rates, the stages of dying and putrefaction, and details of corpse disposal unmask what religions are up against.

2. Theories are introduced that portray supernaturalist or transcendent responses to mortality as a advantageous, if not, necessary, way of living with death, e.g. Michael Persinger's thesis that the brain capacity for religion developed as an evolutionary response to otherwise disastrous death anxiety.

3. The critical agenda and methods of religious studies are reviewed, preparing students to ask:  how and how well do religions buffer against the reality of the grave?  To what extent do religious treatments amplify, as well as assuage, fear of death; explain death by admitting its incomprehensibility; express, rather than resolve, the conflicts of the grieving heart?

4. Different verdicts-for assuredly there is no single one-will be rendered on the basis of survey, cultural, and autobiographical evidence.  To this end, the rest of the course is devoted to the collection, comparison, and evaluation of specific religious renderings of death.  The materials will be organized in several overlapping ways: by tradition or cultural area (e.g., Islam, China), religious form (experiential, ritual, mythic), and generic human responses to death (e.g., the depiction of an afterlife, funerals, ghost beliefs).  Exact topics will vary, but may include, e.g. journeys to the land of the dead illustrated with Plato's myth of Er, shamanic revelations, and contemporary Near-Death Experiences.  Examples will be deleted to convey the spectacular variety of supernaturalist interpretations of death, a portrait of the resourcefulness and folly of humans under duress.

To address a secondary course theme-the decline of traditional religious approaches to death in the modern West-contemporary humanistic and non-ecclesiastical "spiritual" response to death will be included topic by topic.


Detailed Description of Conduct of Course

The course will be conducted through lectures, structured and informal discussions, and student presentations.  Assignments, e.g., to write a will or develop a ritual for a dying relative, will exploit the personal relevance of the subject matter for student engagement.  Videos, e.g., of terminal patients or funerals, will assist in conveying the substantial non-verbal dimensions of death and religious treatments of it.  Lecture materials will be supplemented with student presentations of assigned literature on particular topics.  Finally, students will present group and/or individual research projects that address course issues in contexts not covered in the lectures.


Goals and Objectives of the Course

The course is designed to expose students to a critical aspect of adult life for which our society offers little preparation; to enhance general intellectual skills; and to cultivate specialized knowledge of religious life.  Upon completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Related responses to mortality in distant settings to their own experiences of death
  • Better communicate orally and in writing
  • Develop and use typologies that incisively articulate cross-cultural similarities and differences
  • Conduct analyses from a critical methodological posture
  • Conduct and present advanced college level research
  • Apply theories from multiple disciplines to data
  • Compare and contrast traditional and contemporary approaches to death
  • Identify functions and dysfunctions of religions in a critical performance area
  • Identify and explain a case of modern secularization and its consequences


Assessment Measures

Grades may be derived from exams, a literature review, a research paper, a group project, and attendance.  The research paper will require students to identify particular religious treatments of death, gather pertinent data, and conduct an analysis that addresses course issues.  The final grade on the paper will reflect submissions throughout the semester of a proposal, bibliography, and outline.  the group project will require a cooperative accumulation and analysis of primary data (e.g., religious treatments of death in the NRV).


Other Course Information

Sample of texts assigned to students:

  • Anderson, Megory.  Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life.  New York: Marlowe, 2003.
  • Bailey, Lee W., & Jenny Yates, eds.  The Near-Death Experience: A Reader.  New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Chidester, David.  Patterns of Transcendence:  Religion, Death, and Dying. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002.
  • DeStephano, Anthony.  A Travel Guide to Heaven.  New York: Doubleday, 2003.
  • Fried, Martha, & Morton Fried.  Transitions: Four Rituals in Eight Cultures.  New York: Penguin Books, 1980.
  • Guggenheim, Bill, & Judy Guggenheim.  Hello from Heaven! A new field of research-After-Death Communication-affirms that life and love are eternal.  New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
  • Parkes, Colin M., Pittu Laungani, & Bill Young, eds.  Death and Bereavement Across Cultures.  New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Stannard, David.  The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  Lament for a Son.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987.


Review and Approval

October, 2006 Reviewed Kim Kipling