Readings for a course on death and philosophy
December 14, 2010 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Philosophical approaches to death and dying. I am prepping a college course; looking for great readings on philosophical questions about death, but also: world religious/cultural traditions about dying/funerals/mourning/afterlife, how people in death-related jobs see their work (undertakers, hospice workers, doctors, chaplains, military/police...), writings of people who have terminal illnesses, psychological research on preparation for dying, etc.

I am in the gathering-ideas phase, so please feel free to suggest everything that comes to mind -- magazine articles, movies, novels, scholarly articles, historical Great Works stuff. Especially if you used it/read it in a college or graduate course and found it memorable or a good piece for class discussion.
posted by LobsterMitten to Religion & Philosophy (49 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I liked How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter by Sherwin Nuland. It's probably more clinical than you are looking for, but it is one of the most unflinching books about death I've ever seen. I read it in a history of medicine course in college.
posted by pecknpah at 4:29 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I took a course like this in my freshman year of college. The one book that really stuck with me from it is The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch. He's an undertaker, in case that wasn't obvious. Selections from Mary Roach's Stiff (about what happens to cadavers that are donated to science) might also be interesting. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking might be good if you want to cover grieving after someone actually dies. Finally, Atul Gawande wrote an amazing article in the New Yorker about end-of-life decision making.
posted by vytae at 4:33 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy was what really stuck with me from a grad seminar on medieval death and dying.
posted by RogerB at 4:34 PM on December 14, 2010

Oh, you might also find useful clips in the movie Wit starring Emma Thompson. The movie covers her journey through terminal cancer, and the character has quite a bit to say about what it's like to die.

In the class I took, the professor used a montage from the middle of Groundhog's Day where he keeps waking up to the same damn radio program as an illustration of how samsara/reincarnation is viewed in some Buddhist cultures, since the idea of immortality being a bad thing was pretty foreign to the suburban, white, American kids in his class.
posted by vytae at 4:38 PM on December 14, 2010

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (not exclusively about death and dying, but it's a topic he considers at length) -- I read it in an intro to philosophy course and loved it.
posted by scody at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

C.S. Lewis wrote "A Grief Observed" after his wife's death. He had some interesting philosophical views about death and dying that might be worth checking out.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:42 PM on December 14, 2010

From Walt Whitman: Whispers of Heavenly Death (periodical version). Also, Reconciliation, written after Whitman's long service as a volunteer in the Civil War hospitals. Finally, my favorite recycling poem, This Compost, and many sections of Song of Myself.

Whitman in general has a beautiful, interesting, and sane view of death, as befits someone who saw a great deal of it.
posted by LucretiusJones at 4:45 PM on December 14, 2010

Here are a few things from cultural anthropology on death and dying.

Russ, Ann Julienne. 2005. Love's labor paid for: Gift and commodity at the threshold of death. Cultural Anthropology 20 (1): 128-155.

This is a nice article about hospice workers dealing with terminal cancer, and later AIDS, patients.

Lock, Margaret. 1996. Death in technological time: Locating the end of meaningful life. Med Anthropol Q 10 (4): 575-600. Web.
Lock, Margaret M. 2002. Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

A couple of sources on ideas about death in Japan and North America and how they fit with the emergence of organ transplantation.

Long, Susan Orpett. 2003. Becoming a cucumber: Culture, nature, and the good death in japan and the united states. Journal of Japanese Studies 29 (1): 33-68.
———. 2005. Final Days: Japanese Culture and Choice at the End of Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

More comparisons between Japan and North America.
posted by mariokrat at 4:48 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Boethius.

Plato's Crito also seems appropriate.
posted by thinman at 4:50 PM on December 14, 2010

There are the classics on this subject in the western canon - Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus. More recently, I'd throw in Bernard Williams and Todd May, both of whom argue that even if death is a bad, immortality is not in itself desirable. May's Death is probably accessible to undergraduates in a first course.
posted by el_lupino at 4:56 PM on December 14, 2010

The modern classic is Kubler-Ross.

Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies is an awesome resource. More pragmatic than philosophical.

Check to see if your college library has bound copies of the old Journal of Thanatology.
posted by neuron at 5:15 PM on December 14, 2010

Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, is an amazing book about dead bodies. But it's also much more than that. It talks about organ and cadaver donation, ancient burial practices, consumer safety testing, cannibalism, medical research, and much, much more. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
posted by decathecting at 5:26 PM on December 14, 2010

Another professor in my department uses The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy to kick off his death-and-dying unit.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:26 PM on December 14, 2010

A couple of years ago I was struggling with my father's death. I googled syllabi for sociology/anthropology/divinity/theology/nursing/counseling/etc etc courses on death and dying and spent $300 on books to create the Teragram Reading Course on Death and Dying. I haven't read them all, and who knows if the courses I looked at were any good, but, these are the books I could find scattered around my bookshelves.

Number Our Days, Barbara Myerhoff
The Last Dance, DeSpelder and Strickland
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche
How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, Sherwin B. Nuland
The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm
When Things Fall Apart, Chodron
A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis
Stiff, Mary Roach
Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag
On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and DAvid Kessler
Celebrations of Death, Metcalf and Huntington
The Archeology of Death and Burial, Pearson
Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Worden
posted by teragram at 5:30 PM on December 14, 2010

I thought the TV show Six Feet Under, about a family who runs a funeral home, did a good job of talking about death. The pilot episode and the episode at the very end of the series where (SPOILER ALERT!) the oldest brother Nate dies are two that stand out in my mind.

The Japanese movie Afterlife is very beautiful and meditative. I think it would spark good discussions.

Years ago, I took an undergrad religious studies course called "Death and the Afterlife in Western Religious Traditions." To be honest, I don't remember any of the texts we read (which is a shame--they were quite good), but what I remember most about that course was two things: first, we had a local undertaker come to our class and give a talk about his job; second, our professor asked us to, in preparation for the final exam, interview as many people as we could about their beliefs on the afterlife. We had an essay question on the final where we wrote about what we had learned in our discussions. Those conversations I had with my peers were illuminating; the friends and family members I asked took it seriously and gave me thoughtful answers.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:34 PM on December 14, 2010

Nthing The Last Dance.
posted by jgirl at 5:39 PM on December 14, 2010

Michel de Montaigne's essay from 1568, "That To Philosophize Is To Learn To Die" is a classic on the subject of death. This essay has famously influenced many people, like Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Shakespeare, Isaac Asimov, and more.

It can be a little dense to read, but it is short (only like 7 pages). Its message is pretty simple, if you think about death, you will think about and appreciate life even more. Death makes each moment more valuable, and it makes each memory and achievement more sweet and unique. By ignoring death, you are failing to see life at its most precious.
posted by Flood at 5:47 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a virtually endless supply of work on death in nineteenth-century British and American culture; for the British side of things, Pat Jalland's Death and the Victorian Family and James Steven Curl's The Victorian Way of Death. For a more large-scale history, Peter Jupp's and Clare Gitting's Death in England. Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H. was the go-to poetic sequence, but there's also Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' hugely popular The Gates Ajar (a novel previewing life in Heaven, basically), which was brought back into print a few years ago.

Have the students look at transi tombs, perhaps?
posted by thomas j wise at 6:02 PM on December 14, 2010

Absolutely seconding the Montaigne here. Also, and this might be odd, but if you are interested in writers using death as a way of talking about other things, I always think of Virginia Woolf's essay "Flying over London" when I think of Montaigne.
posted by oohisay at 6:04 PM on December 14, 2010

This Wild Darkness: A Memoir of My Death by Harold Brodkey. It was written just before he died and published shortly thereafter.
posted by jayder at 6:20 PM on December 14, 2010

Recovering From Mortality: Essays From A Cancer Limbo Time is not a book about cancer, but about the knowledge of one's own mortality and how that knowledge affects the way one lives. Very powerful, very beautiful. Highly recommended.
posted by ND¢ at 6:26 PM on December 14, 2010

I haven't used/read it, but Fred Feldman has a book called Confrontations with the Reaper.
posted by chndrcks at 6:34 PM on December 14, 2010

Depending on the sort of class this is, perhaps Derrida's The Gift of Death? Very interesting book, but likely one that requires some philosophical background.
posted by roast beef at 6:37 PM on December 14, 2010

Robert F. Almeder's Death and Personal Survival might be worth a look (full disclosure, I took a course from him in undergrad, not on this topic, however).

William R. Maples' Dead Men Do Tell Tales is a book on forensic anthropology, but also has much philosophical musing by the author about the many cases he worked on.

David Hume's “Of the Immortality of the Soul" might also be a good reading to include, though a bit dense.

Thomas Nagel's "Death" might also be worth your time.
posted by strixus at 6:41 PM on December 14, 2010

Sorry for the double post, but here's a bit of info on The Gift of Death from a review:

French philosopher Derrida stares death in the face in this dense but rewarding inquiry. Beginning with an analysis of an essay on the sacred by Czech philosopher/human rights activist Jan Patocka, Derrida follows the development of moral and ethical responsibility, and the concept of the soul's immortality, in the transition from Platonism to Christianity. He then ponders the self's anticipation of death in sacrifice, war, orgiastic mystery cults, murder and execution, with reference to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, Nietzsche, Heidegger's thought (a "constant attempt to separate itself from Christianity") and the biblical story of Abraham's contemplated sacrifice of his son, Isaac, at God's behest. In the most provocative section, Derrida links religious injunctions of sacrifice to the "monotonous complacency" of modern society, which allows tens of millions of children to die of hunger and disease.
posted by roast beef at 6:41 PM on December 14, 2010

I enjoy the segment from David Suzuki's A Sacred Balance, which contextualizes death in terms of James Lovelock's Gaia perspective and includes a personal reflection from David Sukuki about the death of his father. It includes an interesting framework for considering life/death as dynamic planetary systems in which humans participate globally, but also offers an interesting symbolically meaningful perspective on death and the continuity of life. This segment covers some of it, but not all of what you'd need. Here's the full dvd, and the segment is on the 'Journey into new worlds' volume. Here's a blurb on it, but it doesn't bring out what is actually relevant for you. I'm sure the script is available on the portal, but I can't find it right now. I'll memail you the script of the relevant piece.

I'm not in my office to be able to check to see how this segment is written up in the accompanying book, but it's a possibility if you want the print resource. I have used this in a university course (not on death/dying) and it generated good discussion.

Here is an online source for: Death without weeping, which I am familiar with from Anthropology Annual Editions volumes, (and has a full book version), and I use as a course reading.

While looking for the above source, I came across Death, Mourning and Burial: a cross cultural reader. (which this link indicates is out of stock). I don't know this volume, but I know some of the contents and authors and they look good.
posted by kch at 6:44 PM on December 14, 2010

Response by poster: These are all great -- thank you all!

Someone suggested this to me privately:
Comforting atheist thoughts about death
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:53 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

C.S. Lewis wrote "A Grief Observed" after his wife's death. He had some interesting philosophical views about death and dying that might be worth checking out.

It might be interesting to read The Problem of Pain in conjunction with A Grief Observed. The contrast between them is pretty striking in terms of his confidence about God's goodness in the earlier book and then his terrible grief in the second.
posted by pecknpah at 7:01 PM on December 14, 2010

The American Way of Death Revisited - Jessica Mitford

Will The Circle Be Unbroken - Studs Terkel
posted by SisterHavana at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2010

I like "In the Midst of Winter" for essays and poetry on death and grief.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:12 PM on December 14, 2010

The American Way of Death Revisited - Jessica Mitford

Aha! That jogged my memory. The original version of The American Way of Death was one of the assigned texts for the course I took, and I do remember it being very good.

Mr. hgg recommends Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary.

A few years ago at a film festival I saw Exit, a documentary about euthanasia. It was one of the most moving films I've ever seen, and I still think about it from time to time. It seems to be hard to access, but if you can get your hands on a copy or are able to attend a screening, I would highly recommend it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:41 PM on December 14, 2010

Some universities in China and Japan have Life and Death Studies as a department. Amusingly, though, when I Google the English phrase I only get my own paper that I've written on the subject.

Here's an utterly useless English wiki article, a much stronger article in Japanese, and the Tokyo University departmental website in English.
posted by shii at 9:20 PM on December 14, 2010

Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:39 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Platonic dialogue about death (in which Socrates also says that philosophy is the practice of nothing other than dying and being dead) is the Phaedo, and it is beautiful and in every way misleading.
posted by ke rose ne at 9:39 PM on December 14, 2010

I've listened to part of this great Death course at Open Yale Courses. The site has podcasts, syllabus, and handouts.
posted by rustcellar at 9:39 PM on December 14, 2010

Maybe Okuribito/Departures?
posted by emmling at 11:37 PM on December 14, 2010

A few chapters from Parfit's Reasons and Persons could fit well with a class like this.

Is killing too loosely connected? Because there's obviously been a lot written about that.

I'm sure LM already knows about the SEP, but for others who find this question later, I'll add that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can often be a good starting point, especially for finding the key readings on a topic. For example, the entry on death has a nice bibliography with lots of interesting articles.

Hey look! both books I recommended are in that bibliography - go me! ;)
posted by chndrcks at 11:40 PM on December 14, 2010

For my Death and Dying sociology course, we read The American Way of Death and On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, both of which had an impact on me. I really enjoyed Tuesdays with Morrie for an in class movie day. Death Be Not Proud was a great choice for a fictional piece. Good luck with your course!
posted by sunnychef88 at 11:42 PM on December 14, 2010

Dan Moller had a great paper called "Love and Death", published in the Journal of Philosophy, about emotional resilience and the grieving process. It's also available from his website.
posted by fryman at 12:30 AM on December 15, 2010

Movie: Jacob's Ladder
Novel: Passage
posted by zanni at 2:37 AM on December 15, 2010

A Family Undertaking is a PBS POV documentary that examines the idea of home funerals. The film portrays death as an intimate family event. In my mind, a kin to birth. The stories are as beautiful and inspirational as they are heartbreaking. It presents ideas that challenge our typical (American) way of dealing with the "process" of dying. Personally, it changed how I view my own mortality. I now am more likely to think of it as something that is part of me while I am still alive. As something I own. Not as something that owns me.
posted by nickjadlowe at 5:33 AM on December 15, 2010

You can find helpful "squashed" (ie condensed and annotated) versions of the Aurelius and Boethius already mentioned for free here.
posted by Jorus at 5:54 AM on December 15, 2010

"The Oxford Book of Death," edited by D.J. Enright, is a collection of essays, poems, etc, a catch-all on the subject. Terrific read.
Montaigne is always perfect on any topic.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:23 AM on December 15, 2010

Malagasay Death rituals from a guidebook and an academic paper
posted by lalochezia at 10:11 AM on December 15, 2010

I highly recommend the fantastic (and short!) A Very Easy Death, Simone De Beauvoir's account and thoughts of her mother's final days.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:19 AM on December 15, 2010

It's a divisive movie, but I'd strongly recommend The Fountain which is more about how the loved one of someone dying comes to terms with mortality. It just happens to be told in three different parts, spanning 1000 years.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:21 AM on December 16, 2010

Response by poster: A helpful user sent me these additional suggestions:
A great (and depressing) non-philosophical article in n+1 about end-of-life decisions, written by an ICU doctor.

David Benatar's "Better Never to Have Been" argues that "coming into existence is always a serious harm" and that it's better to abort fetuses (preferably early) than to create additional people--a surprising position that I think is wrong, but maybe parts of it could be defended.
Benatar's reply:

Benatar also edited an anthology called "Life, Death, and Meaning"

An article on people in Tamil Nadu who kill their parents because they can't afford to take care of them--a practice which neither the perpetrators nor the victims seem to think is wrong.
And this Mefi thread on Tibetan "sky burials":
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:17 PM on December 16, 2010

Response by poster: Recent question on non theist writings about grief.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:41 PM on December 24, 2010

Coming in very late, but --

Havi Carel's Illness -- she's a philosopher in England with a serious lung disease.
Nagel, of course.
Lucretius & epicurus
George Pitcher
Jeff McMahon
Frances Kamm
Ben Bradley
posted by kestrel251 at 12:05 PM on January 19, 2011

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