Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures

Course No. 6822
Professor Mark Berkson, Ph.D.
Hamline University
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Course No. 6822
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover how the definition of death exists on multiple levels: religious, biological, philosophical, cultural, legal, and political.
  • numbers Chart the evolution of American funerals by looking at three major periods: the traditional, the modern, and the post-modern.
  • numbers Investigate Christian views of death, including the possibility of physical bodies in the afterlife; the concepts of hell, purgatory, and limbo.
  • numbers Examine what great philosophers and holy books say about suicide, and consider the numerous factors behind the act.
  • numbers Ponder the moral and spiritual dimensions about the death of other animals - and what that might reveal about our views of our own mortality.
  • numbers Ponder how death, surprisingly, makes a meaningful life possible.

Course Overview

It’s a universal truth: Everyone—including you—will eventually die. Other forms of life on our planet will also die, but we might be the only living creatures who cannot help but contemplate our own mortality. After thousands of years of pondering it, we still find death one of life’s most perplexing mysteries—yet it doesn’t have to be the most frightening.

Death serves as the horizon against which our lives unfold and shapes the choices we make about how to live. In fact, the knowledge of mortality has inspired much of human activity—religion, philosophy, music and visual arts, even scientific endeavors and monumental architecture have all been driven by our understanding of death. Whether viewed as a transition to paradise or punishment, an ultimate separation or ecstatic joining, the end of existence or the beginning of a new way of being, many cultures have learned to see death as a window into the true meaning of life. The subject, therefore, deserves our close consideration.

Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures is an uplifting, meaningful, and multidisciplinary exploration of life’s only certainty. While we’re predisposed to look on death with fear and sadness, it’s only by confronting and exploring death head-on that we can actually embrace the important role it plays in our lives. Death, it turns out, is a powerful teacher, one that can help us

  • think responsibly and deeply about the meaning and value of life;
  • connect with the beliefs and traditions of cultures and faiths different from our own;
  • gain the wisdom and guidance to live a richer, more fulfilling life while we have it.

As religion scholar and award-winning Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University says, “Reflecting on death and dying is an essential part of the examined life.” Take a wide-ranging look at this undeniably confounding and fascinating subject. Bringing together theology, philosophy, biology, anthropology, literature, psychology, sociology, and other fields, these 24 lectures are a brilliant compendium of how human beings have struggled to come to terms with mortality. You’ll encounter everything from ancient burial practices, traditional views of the afterlife, and the five stages of grief to the question of killing during wartime, the phenomenon of near-death experiences, and even 21st-century theories about transcending death itself. Prepare for a remarkable learning experience that brings you face-to-face with the most important topic mortals like us can consider.

Get Answers to Profound Questions about Death

“Thinking about death is not simply the price we have to pay for a fuller, more honest understanding of our lives,” says Professor Berkson. “Reflecting on death can have a remarkably positive effect on one’s life.”

With personal and cultural enlightenment as the overarching goal, his lectures provide you with comprehensive, eye-opening answers to several major questions surrounding the topic of death.

  • How do we think and feel about death? Several lectures are devoted to the ways we conceptualize and form attitudes about death—as good, as bad, or as nothing at all. Topics you’ll explore include common symbols of death, different medical and spiritual definitions of death, the phenomenon of death denial, and the rationality of fearing our eventual death.
  • How do we experience death? Emphasizing the fields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology, you’ll get an in-depth look at how human beings from a cross-section of cultures and traditions experience death—both their own and that of loved ones. How do different people cope with grief in different ways? What are the backstories behind various burial rituals? What does it mean to die well?
  • How do religions approach death and what comes after? A major part of this course is devoted to comparing and contrasting Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian attitudes toward death. You’ll learn how these great world faiths explain the existence of death, their beliefs regarding what happens to us after we die (including various manifestations of paradise and hell), their rituals for handling corpses, and much more.
  • When (if ever) is it justified to take a life? You’ll also get an opportunity to plunge into the fierce debates over the deliberate taking of a human life, whether through suicide, euthanasia, or warfare. In all cases, Professor Berkson presents both sides of the argument, giving you the cultural background and information you need to better understand others’ opinions and beliefs, and to better support—or revise—your own.
  • How important is death to our understanding of our humanity? Spend time focusing on what natural science has revealed about death and the process of dying—and the possibility of somehow transcending or avoiding death entirely. Also, probe historical efforts to extend human life, and ponder the ethical and social dilemmas of immortality.

Professor Berkson is a gentle but persistently curious guide, leading you through these topics with wonder, reverence, and occasionally even humor.

Join Great Thinkers in Pondering the Problem of Death

Throughout Death, Dying and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures, you’ll hear a chorus of voices from multiple disciplines, cultures, and time periods as they offer their unique, sometimes shocking, and sometimes refreshing perspectives on the problem of death. These voices range from noted poets and celebrated scientists to philosophers (both ancient and modern) and spiritual leaders, including:

  • the Buddha, who, in an effort to help people find freedom from suffering, taught that if we don’t have a distinct self to begin with, death really takes nothing from us
  • St. Paul, whose writings in the New Testament about the defeat of death through Jesus Christ (“O death, where is thy sting?”) have gone on to inspire billions of Christians around the world
  • Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who believed that because death deprives us of sense experience (and all good and bad consists of experience), it can’t be bad for us at all
  • Albert Camus, the popular Existentialist writer who questioned whether or not suicide was the appropriate response to the hopeless absurdity of life
  • Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, whose groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (1969) introduced readers to the now-classic five stages of the grieving process
  • Dylan Thomas, whose oft-recited poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” is a rousing cry of defiance, urging the reader to fight back against death as long as possible

Some of these voices and viewpoints will console you; others may trouble you. But all of them will add intriguing layers to your understanding of what death and dying have meant to so many people who came before you.

Lectures That Will Magnify Your Life

A master scholar and multi-award-winning teacher, Professor Berkson is a wonderful instructor who treats the subject of death in great detail—while respecting the importance of numerous beliefs and ways of thinking about the topic. He’s as adept at talking about Puritan burial rites in colonial America as he is breaking down the ethical complexities of taking a life to alleviate suffering. He’s a teacher who’s not only an expert in such heady subject matter but also someone constantly in awe at just how powerful death has been across cultures and throughout time.

Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures acts as a memento mori (a reminder of death common to medieval art): something used not for the sake of morbidity but as a spur for people to perfect themselves while still alive.

“Many religious traditions teach that a form of regular death reflection can deepen one’s appreciation for life,” Professor Berkson notes. “And in some traditions, it can actually lead to spiritual transformation or awakening. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death at the same time magnifies life.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Death's Place in Our Lives
    Start your exploration of this profound topic with a helpful overview of how we, as human beings, think about death. What place does it occupy in our lives? How have our attitudes about it changed over time? What symbols and euphemisms do we use to talk about it? x
  • 2
    Defining Death
    To truly understand the subject of death, you have to be able to define it. Here, discover how the definition of death exists on multiple levels and how each of these levels - the religious, biological, philosophical, cultural, legal, and political - determines when a living being becomes a dead one. x
  • 3
    Death, Illusion, and Meaning
    Explore how it's possible for us to find meaning in life - even when confronted with the finality of it. Drawing on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, discover how forms of death denial serve to allay fears about our insignificance, and how we can cultivate meaning in the face of mortality. x
  • 4
    Is It Rational to Fear Death?
    Should death be considered bad"? Should we even bother fearing it? As you reflect on philosophical arguments by the ancient Epicurus (who thought death wasn't bad for the dead) and the modern Thomas Nagel (who believes we should fear death), you'll consider the possibility that both sides are right." x
  • 5
    Understanding and Coping with Grief
    In this lecture on what Professor Berkson calls an inescapable part of the human condition," unpack the feelings and behaviors of the grieving process. Topics include the evolutionary benefits of grief, the five stages of grief laid out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and the three categories of grieving identified by psychologist George Bonanno. " x
  • 6
    Death Rituals and the Corpse
    Since the dawn of humanity, corpses have held lasting significance for us. In this lecture, probe the various ways human civilizations have disposed" of corpses - from burial (the oldest method for which evidence still exists) and mummification to cremation and natural exposure (known as "excarnation")." x
  • 7
    American Death Rituals
    In America, death rituals display a remarkable diversity and range from the minimalist to the extravagant. Chart the evolution of American funerals by looking at three major periods: the traditional (exemplified by Puritan burial rites), the modern (characterized by professionalization), and the post-modern (where loved ones play a more active role). x
  • 8
    Approaches to Dying Well
    None of us can avoid dying. But some believe we can learn how to die well. Professor Berkson introduces you to ways that others have faced death (with regret, dignity, even rage) and also considers some of the practical ways we can make the best of our deaths when our time comes. x
  • 9
    Judaism on Death and the Afterlife
    In the first of several lectures on how major world faiths approach death, the focus is on Judaism. From the importance of mourning and burial rites to the recent resurgence in American Jewish belief in an afterlife, go inside the evolving views on death and the afterlife in Jewish history. x
  • 10
    Death and Hope in Christianity
    For Christians, death does not have the final say; in fact, the living have the hope of victory over death. Investigate Christian views of death, including the possibility of physical bodies in the afterlife; the concepts of hell, purgatory, and limbo; and the similarities and differences between Catholic and Protestant practices. x
  • 11
    Islam on Returning to God
    Many Muslims consider life on earth as a test to determine one's eternal fate, making existence just one part of an infinitely greater story. Consider how the primary forms of Islam - Sunni, Shia, and Sufi - approach the concept of paradise and hell, the four main practices of treating a corpse, and more. x
  • 12
    Death, Rebirth, and Liberation in Hinduism
    In Hinduism, death is part of a grander cycle of rebirth and suffering - with the ultimate goal of liberation (moksha). Here, ponder the concept of the Atman (one's immutable soul); meet the Hindu gods who personify death and, relatedly, time; and learn what rituals can prevent a spirit from becoming stuck between worlds. x
  • 13
    Buddhism on Impermanence and Mindfulness
    Professor Berkson notes that the Buddhist tradition was established, in part, as a response to the realities of sickness and death. The Buddha's response to the experience of dying, as you'll learn, involves seeing past the illusion of self, recognizing the concept of impermanence, and practicing mindfulness. x
  • 14
    The Process of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism
    Continue a look a Buddhist approaches to death, this time focusing on Tibetan Buddhism's deep, extensive teachings on the actual process of death and rebirth. Central to this lecture: the fascinating Bardo Thodol (or the Tibetan Book of the Dead), whose lessons are applicable both to Buddhists and non-Buddhists. x
  • 15
    Confucian Remembrance, Daoist Forgetting
    Unlike other faiths, Confucianism and Daoism focus almost entirely on life in this world, not the next. So how do followers find meaning and consolation in the face of their deaths? The answers can be found in the distinct approaches of the great Chinese thinkers Confucius and Zhuangzi. x
  • 16
    Death and Syncretism in China
    First, look at Chinese traditions involving spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings. Then, visit some of the many possibilities for a soul's destination in Chinese traditions (including a Pure Land, an underworld, and rebirth). Finally, discover how conflicting views of the afterlife accurately capture our ambivalent feelings about death. x
  • 17
    Suicide Examined
    In the last half-century, suicide rates have increased nearly 60% worldwide. This is your opportunity to investigate ways to think about this stigmatized subject. You'll examine what great philosophers and holy books say about suicide, and consider the numerous factors that sometimes compel people to take their own lives. x
  • 18
    The Choice of Euthanasia
    Examine another controversial subject: euthanasia, or the deliberate ending of a life to ease suffering. By exploring the actual experiences of suffering people, the three kinds of euthanasia, and the religious and non-religious policy arguments for and against the practice, you'll be better prepared to join the debate yourself. x
  • 19
    Killing in War and the Pacifist Challenge
    Is deliberate killing justified when it happens during wartime? Consider this powerful question by looking at how depersonalization helps soldiers become more comfortable with killing; how civilizations and religious traditions have morally justified war; and arguments for (and criticism of) a pacifist approach to life. x
  • 20
    Considering Capital Punishment
    In this lecture, Professor Berkson discusses the nature of capital punishment, the moral arguments for and against it, and whether or not the practice accomplishes its intended purposes. Specifically, you'll focus on capital punishment as it's practiced in the United States, where debate has long been intense. x
  • 21
    Killing Non-Human Animals
    From euthanizing a sick dog to slaughtering cows for food, how do we reconcile our feelings about killing when it comes to the non-human animals around us? Ponder the moral and spiritual dimensions of the death of other animals - and what that might reveal about our views of our own mortality. x
  • 22
    Near-Death Experiences
    Explore the mysterious topic of near-death experiences (NDEs). You'll encounter fascinating stories told by survivors themselves; explore the scientific studies behind - and possible explanations for - this increasingly common phenomenon; survey the four major types of NDEs; and join the passionate debate between NDE believers and skeptics. x
  • 23
    The Pursuit of Immortality
    For as long as we've been aware of death, we've searched for ways to avoid it. Examine a few of the many methods people have used to attempt immortality, including Daoist alchemical methods, empirical approaches by early Muslim scientists, and cutting-edge concepts such as gene manipulation and downloading one's consciousness into a computer. x
  • 24
    The Value of Death
    Does death offer us something of value? In this last lecture, continue examining the idea of immortality. You'll cover the negative implications of immortality (like boredom), examine issues that Jorge Luis Borges raises in a tale about immortality, and ponder how death, surprisingly, might make a meaningful life possible. x

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Your professor

Mark Berkson

About Your Professor

Mark Berkson, Ph.D.
Hamline University
Dr. Mark Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has twice received Faculty Member of the Year awards and has received multiple fellowships for his work in Asian religions. A...
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Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation and value The professor presents information in an enjoyable way, despite the course title. I am teaching a class with students who have "experience" with the subject, and the lectures are well-received.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Much So Well Said in This Course! Professor Berkson said so much so well in this course, I constantly found myself going back to his lectures so I could transcribe his words of wisdom! The biggest challenge to this course is getting over the subject matter: If I'm going for a walk, do I really want to listen to a lecture on dying? That was the hardest part! But once over that hurdle, this course is compelling and engaging. I reserve my sole critique for the animal death lecture, wherein he suggests that for every human instinct or behavior, there's an equivalent one in the animal world. To this, I respond that what ultimately separates man from animal is his conscience and morality. Even if, like Aristotle, one would argue that what separates man from animal is his rationality, I find limited rationality exists among the animals: For example, my pet parrots know how to "deny the lesser to gain the greater" when it comes to awaiting fresh water in the morning: Though they're thirsty, they'll willingly wait until I arrive with fresh water to drink, rather than to drink the old water. This activity refutes Rene Descartes, who claimed that only man can desire against desire. Only man is endowed with a conscience, and only man chooses to behave morally. This, therefore, is what ultimately distinguishes man from animal. In conclusion, an excellent course, well worth the listening to every word. Yes, to quote Franz Kafka, "The meaning of life is that it ends."
Date published: 2020-07-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very thorough analysis of the subject! Very good and detailed approach to this complex area of knowledge. Sometimes a bit exhaustive due to large amount of citations! The listener may loose track of the point being made!
Date published: 2020-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Coverage of Topics This was a course I didn't want to set down! Professor Berkson covered a wide variety of topics within Death and Dying, not limited to but including differing religious viewpoints, choices, killing in conflict, and near death experience. His delivery was rounded and unprejudiced (although transparent), and I doubt anyone else could have done a better job on this topic.
Date published: 2020-06-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Much Content, Much Boredom When I purchased this course, I was looking for some insight into the afterlife. However the lectures focused mainly on death and dying. While Prof. Berkson did an excellent job with organization and presentation, the course seemed to be someone talking through an encyclopedia. Yes, there was a lot of content, but it was mostly boring. I can only recommend the course to be used as a reference, but not for stirring up one's intellect. There were some interesting items: the definition of when a human is dead, discussing and comparing various religions, views on capital punishment, slaughtering animals (does this belong in these lectures??), near-death experiences, discussions of why we age. The last two items were the most interesting; however, the limited content was outweighed by boredom. Sorry, I respect Professor Berkson’s extensive knowledge and excellent presentation skills, but I have to be honest - the course was difficult to get through.
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great, but with reservations Though Professor Berkson delivers illuminating information about attitudes on death, dying and the afterlife throughout world cultures, none of it can be called lessons. Lessons are information that can be applied practically, like piano lessons, yoga lessons, even lessons on how to live a better life, none of which apply here. The several traditions around death, dying and the afterlife can only be speculation in all cases since no one has ever returned who's been there. And there is nothing to be conclusively derived from speculation. Immanuel Kant made that eminently clear over two centuries ago by distinguishing what could be explained, phenomenon, from what could not, noumenon. In dealing with death, dying and the afterlife, we are dealing with the inscrutable. In the last lecture, Professor Berkson supposes that everyone wants a long life. But what about the gravely ill, or those who've committed, or have contemplated, or contemplate suicide. Studies suggest that the activity of certain genes predisposes some people to this counterintuitive outcome. That said, these lectures are immensively valuable for anyone courageous enough, and diligent enough to face the question of dying, a process that should lead to peace of mind when properly undertaken.
Date published: 2020-03-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from To much personal opinion The presenter spent to much time discussing his OWN personal opinion at several points rather than just presenting facts
Date published: 2020-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting and thought-provoking course I learned a lot from this course which covered death from perspective of several different cultures and religion. I particularly like the last few chapters including the subjects of euthanasia and the desirability of immortality if it were possible. The lercturer was excellent. He had a nice tone to his delivery and certain knew the material well. I can highly recommend the course.,
Date published: 2020-02-28
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