“In ethos and spirit, it’s very similar,” said Assistant Professor of Religious Studies David Maldonado Rivera, who now teaches the class. “I’ve made the course my own but am also aware that it’s something that had an incredible success before I arrived.”

The biennial course always has a waiting list, and was so popular this spring that an extra iteration is being offered in the fall. Despite the weighty subject matter, Maldonado Rivera noted that the seminar is “completely the opposite” of sad or depressing, with students from all academic disciplines finding the material compelling. “It’s incredibly multidisciplinary, and students from all kinds of intellectual interests see so much reward in it.”

“It’s a very eclectic group,” he said, adding that he starts off the semester with an intro to the field of religious studies for the benefit of the non-majors in the room. The wide variety of backgrounds is reflected in the formats students choose for their final projects, ranging from podcasts to artwork to musical compositions. Maldonado Rivera encourages students to “play to their own strengths; do something completely different you’ve been dying to try.”

As many less-traditional practices become more common in the funeral industry — with the deceased sometimes choosing to be converted into compost or pressed into a diamond — the course also benefits from proximity to the Kokosing Nature Preserve. Maldonado Rivera is planning a field trip to Gambier’s own green burial cemetery this fall so students can explore the growing popularity of natural burial practices — no chemical embalming, ornate caskets and concrete vaults. “This is a lively trend in the United States,” Maldonado Rivera said, “not just a quirky thing that environmentalists are doing.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than a million people in the United States, has also impacted rituals around death. “Technology has definitely changed how we mourn,” Maldonado Rivera pointed out, sharing that students in the course have discussed experiences with attending funerals on Zoom, and that ideas of non-linear grieving and “ambiguous loss” are closely tied to the pandemic. He believes that the fascination with, and fear of, death are topics that will always be worth exploring. “Ultimately,” he said, “the meaning of death is about the meaning of life.” 

Recommended Reading

  • “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” by Caitlin Doughty
  • “American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the 21st Century,” by Shannon Lee Dawdy
  • “Generations: A Memoir,” by Lucille Clifton

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