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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Exploring the figuratives of death

Published: March 28, 2014
Section: News

A small group of students gathered in the International Lounge in Usdan for a discussion on both the literal and metaphysical concepts of death and dying on Wednesday, March 26.

Waltham Group’s Companions to Elders program (C2E) hosted the event, which consisted of an intimate discussion among students, moderators from C2E and a select group faculty members and other guests. The moderators, consisting of C2E members Hannah Diamond ’14, Adrian Hincapie ’14, Matthew Chamberlain ’15, Linda Nakagawa ’15 and Melanie Gomes ’16, welcomed students and invited them to sit in a small circle of chairs.

Guests at the event were then introduced to the diverse panel of faculty in attendance, including Professor Sarah Lamb (ANTH), Women’s Studies Research Center Scholar Rosie F. Rosenzweig and Dean of Academic Services Lisa Boes. After students introduced themselves, the moderating students passed out small pieces of paper and pens to the attendees and asked the members of the circle to draw “their personal visualization” of death. After a few minutes, people went around the circle sharing their drawings and explaining the meaning behind them. Like those at the event, the drawings were diverse, evoking spiritual and religious imagery as well as fantastic plans for funerals.

The event then turned to guided discussion topics by Diamond, beginning with a question about why talking about death is such a taboo in modern Western society. The answers from those in attendance again came from various viewpoints. People began to reveal their diverse backgrounds and told stories about personal experiences that led them to form their current opinions about death and what comes afterward. Further questions from Diamond followed in a similar vein, dealing specifically with abstract concepts such as the afterlife and ways to reconnect with loved ones who have passed away.

One of the most active participants in the discussion was Rosenzweig, who offered insights influenced by Buddhism, which her son currently studies. “We have no ways in our society to directly deal with the pain [of losing someone],” she said to the circle. “And the fact is that it hurts when someone passes away.”

Similar concerns were voiced by others in the circle. Many people brought up the social pressures surrounding death in the United States, including how grieving, even by friends and family of the deceased, is often correlated with weakness. One student, who did not give her name, told a story about how a family member was committed to appearing as “tough,” as someone would not cry, no matter how tragic the loss.

Audience members also agreed that the hypothetical “afterlife” is a concept essentially impossible to define. Lamb drew from her anthropological studies in Southeast Asia and the region’s religious beliefs, such as reincarnation. “I’ve spoken to many people and been amazed at how calm they were with the concept of death,” Lamb said. “That isn’t anything I ever encountered here, even when dealing with my own personal health issues.”

Though there were personal differences, the members of the circle did share a consensus on most of the larger topics brought up during the event’s eighty-minute runtime. For example, there was general agreement that in today’s world there is so much pressure to appear young, vital and constantly happy, that there is barely any time to sit down and talk about death.

People were also particularly critical of what they saw as the modern, more secular world’s failure to find secular ways to deal with religious concepts of death without belittling them. Toward the end, the conversation drifted to C2E and the volunteers’ experiences, some of whom expressed sadness that even in old age, people were reluctant to discuss death. The event concluded with a calmer atmosphere, and the attendees thanked the event’s organizers for providing a space where they could express their fears and beliefs about death.