My Current Problem with Death

I teach a class in the Philosophy of Death.

Let’s talk about the ridiculousness of that for a moment, shall we?

First, the details. This class meets twice a week for 45 minutes. I have four students in it — the youngest is fourteen; the next youngest is seventeen; and the last two are eighteen. All four of them are engaged participants in every single class. They take  diligent notes, and even discuss passionately with me the structure of those notes, wanting to make sure that what they’re writing down is what I’m trying to get across. I shit you not. The class ends at 12:00pm, lunch time, and every single class, at least two if not all four students choose to stay in their seats and continue our discussion (including a student whose hunger knows no bounds).

These incredible young students come to class every week and expect me — me! — to teach them about the Philosophy of Death.

That’s ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.

What do I know of death?

I’ll tell you what I know of death. One of my students died this year. He was nineteen years old. The young man was no saint, and he died in the company of known criminals, of a gunshot wound, shot in the early hours of the morning in a parked car with his friends, on a dare, with a stolen gun, obtained from a house where the homeowner was assaulted during the robbery, by one of the kids sitting in the car, where my student dared his killer to shoot him, and the shooter did.

I was this boy’s teacher at the last school he attended before dropping out. I was his last formal advisor. He was going down this path before he met me. And he continued down it after me. If anything, I only stalled him for a while and tried to put a smile on his face. I’m not sure I should have tried anything more. I did of course, but not by the end. By the end I only wanted him to know that I still cared. But this isn’t about me. It’s about death.

My great-grandmother’s death is the first one I remember. I remember it in part because my mother often tells the story of how I behaved at the funeral, but it’s not just the story I remember; it’s a visual. We’re seated near the front of the chapel, the priest is just a few yards from us, on my right, and up high, and he’s saying something, and then my eyes go incredibly blurry and I turn my head to the left, looking down and away from the priest, and then my shoulders are shaking, and my breath is coming and going in sobs, and my mother puts her arm around my shoulder and squeezes me tight, except now I’m making such a commotion that she has to take me out the side door of the chapel while the service is still going. In the story, my mother asked me if I understood what the priest was saying, and then she says she could just tell: I understood every word. I was four or five years old.

I really only have one memory of my great-grandmother, but even this could be based on a photograph I’ve seen: she’s seated on a folding chair in the middle of a shaded, sloping lawn. We’re at my family’s summer cabin, and she’s sitting alone up on the grass. Her feet are crossed at the ankles. She’s wearing what appears to be a thin bathrobe over eighty-year-old raggedy bones, but she’s someone who is always nice to me, and her bones don’t scare me. I can feel myself approaching her from her right. I can’t see her face, but I can see that bathrobe and the bones in her arm, her hand lowering to the ground near my head, moving towards me, welcoming me in.

When I was in my twenties, my best friend’s mother died. My memories of her are as strong as my memories of my own mother. I’d known her almost as long, and felt from her almost as much love. She wasn’t a daily presence in my life, especially not by the time I was in my twenties and living in a completely different state, but her son was my best friend and my brother, and so I was in contact with the spirit of her on almost a daily basis. Her death changed him (and changed me) for the better. In her death, she offered with such grace and love her life’s final lesson: this is what courage and dignity looks like.

There have been other deaths in my life. Friends. Family members. Acquaintances. Celebrities. No more than most others, and significantly less than some.

So what do I know of death, and what qualifies me to teach philosophy on the subject? I mean, I’m using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my guide, for God’s sake! — and when I say “as my guide,” I should say that what I’m teaching my students is the Encyclopedia; I’m teaching them its entry.

I know, I know. Lame.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you don’t just want to look at one source, and if you do, you sure as hell don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. That’s a rookie move.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you want to check out all the weird shit from Asia and Africa and South America; and you want to see what the Egyptians had to say about it — after all, if anyone made an art form of death, it was the Egyptians, the first dead people anyone decides to teach us about, in the sense that elementary school teachers seem to not show us pictures of George Washington’s grave or discuss the Colonialists’ burial rituals; they do, however, show us the pyramids and tell us they’re built as monuments to death and filled with kings and queens who have been mummified by priests, a process which could be considered totally creepy (hence, the Mummy as a monster), but is discussed more for its novelty than its sense (or lack thereof) of humanity.

But you also want to make sure it’s a philosophy class, and not just a class for a multicultural tourist. True, it’s a high school class and not a college class, so you don’t have to get too deep on the philosophy side of things, but you ought to reveal some of the major questions around the topic.

Even more, you want to make sure it’s an engaging class. You want the kids to experience philosophy in action. You want them to criticize what you’re trying to teach them and doubt the ideas you put on the board. You want them to scrutinize the language you use and to document your logic while not accepting its dogma. You want them to point out your lesson’s flaws and double-check its facts, even the most basic ones, such as what philosopher said what when. You want them to disagree with each other, challenge each other to define their terms. You want them to discover moments of both clarity and confusion and feel a passionate compulsion to express any questions or doubts.

But you’ve only got so much time in the day. And you have other classes, and other responsibilities, not least of which are your responsibilities as both a father and husband. As a whole person, and not just a teacher, you can’t just be studying death all day. So as a teacher, you have to make choices.

As a teacher, I have to make choices. Should I choose to put my effort into engaging my students each week with 90 minutes of active philosophizing, or should I help them develop a slightly deeper understanding than they may already have about some of humanity’s most cherished ideas?

To do the latter would be to invest a lot of energy into my own education, and would become an almost all-consuming project. It wouldn’t take into account my need to teach a class on women’s studies, a class on academic writing, and a class in which I must lead four young adventurers on an original and yet more-than-improvised campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. It would also mean neglecting many of my responsibilities beyond the classroom.

To do the former, however, to provide my students with the experience of philosophy, all I have to do is spend at least one or two extra hours a week really studying the topic, and then just try to teach the students whatever I learned the week before. Because the information will be so new me, I won’t really know what I’m talking about, which might sound bad, but that will give my students ample opportunity to criticize and question, and then watch and listen as I wrestle out loud with their implications.

With two hours of studying outside of the classroom, I’ll  definitely know at least little more than they do. And of course, I’ll already possess an undergraduate background in Continental philosophy, which means not everything I read will be exactly new to me. That background should also allow me to put up reasonable (or at least time-wasting) defenses on any of the arguments I haven’t fully researched or understood, which again, sounds bad, but will force the students to penetrate to the heart of an idea from more than one angle.

Two hours a week studying the philosophy of death? I can do that in my sleep. Literally. I can lay down at the end of the day with any text even tangentially related to the topic and study it as I fall asleep. Right now, on my own time and out of my own sense of interest, I’m already reading the King James Version of the New Testament, the book most responsible for what America’s dominant culture thinks about death. If I can support that by also reading some more analytically sound thoughts on death, I should be fine.

But I don’t want to read a whole book on death, per se, so articles it’ll have to be. But how to distinguish a reputable article from another? How to find an article or series of articles that will give me enough scope of philosophy’s take on the subject while also making sure I don’t get bogged down in any academic squabbling about details?

The Stanford Encyclopedia. I’ll start there. But shit, have you ever tried to read that thing? They don’t just give you a short entry on something. They break that shit down, take on various theories, reveal various biases on the part of the authors, etc. I’ve only got one to two hours a week, man! I can’t just knock out the Stanford Encyclopedia and move on to the next article. If I’m going teach anything about it, I’ve got to think that shit over. I’ve got to read it slow and re-read certain sections, make sure I understand the logic.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Which means, for the past three weeks. I’ve been teaching my students what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Death.

Unfortunately, I’m only about halfway through it, and it’s starting to get old. The entry basically explores the philosophy around two central questions: What is death, and does it harm us? While those questions are interesting (I guess), they’re also not very exciting — or at least, the way they’re discussed by an old white man is not exciting.

I want to show my students more than what an old white man seems to think.

For that, I’m going to need something that comes from the darker cultures (in every sense of that word), something I can pull up from the moist wet soil of the Earth, a cultural philosophy of death that was once buried and forgotten but has now been returned to us, alive and vital.

I don’t want to talk about the Egyptians, unless it’s the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta, the deaths of people in the streets. Nor do I want to talk about the Indians, unless its the rituals of the telephone operators when they go home at night, contrasted with the rituals of the farmers in the south. I don’t want to talk about the west Africans, or the Aztecs, or the Incas; not the Navajo, those stand-ins for the peaceful Indians, nor the Apache, the Spartans of North America. The Inuit is a possibility; northeastern Russia as well. Japan and China would be little more than a cliche, a blind-eyed choice that excludes the Koreas, Vietnam, and all the other cultures to the south, each with their own rich heritage.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, alone, could be its own nine-week class.

How to choose? And how to figure out the reasons to choose? I’ve only got one to two hours a week, one to two sleepy hours, and at least a portion of those two hours must remain committed to reading something analytical, if only to exercise the analytical skills I need to successfully teach the class for ninety minutes a week.

But wait a second! Don’t I work at a democratic school?! At a democratic school, the teacher doesn’t have to be the one who makes the choice. I only have to present the options as openly as possible to my students, and let them decide. I’m confident I’ll be able to take it from there.

But then it strikes me — What if I’m going about this all wrong? Shouldn’t a class on the Philosophy of Death consider more than just the human community?  Shouldn’t it embrace the entire community of life? It could explore if animals mourn, for example. Enough videos on YouTube prove that other species process the loss of loved ones, so why not use the class to explore that? Why not bring up some environmental and ecological questions about death? I could pose the question of death from the point of view of climate change and political terror, as the death of humanity as we know it, and the potential extinction of all life on Earth.

So many questions. So many possibilities. And only so much time to figure it all out. That’s my current problem with death.