When I decided to make death the subject of my seminar series this fall, I wasn’t entirely sure what my focus was going to be. The process of creating a seminar, researching its facets, and determining your focus is a fluid one. Quite often, in the middle of research you realize that your initial plan wasn’t the most fascinating part of a subject (occasionally, you learn that you were wrong, but that only happens to science and math teachers), and you have to rethink your whole approach.
I started the fall intending to do a sociological exploration of cemeteries. There’s a large cemetery in downtown Winchester that has amazing monuments; it just looks like a fascinating place to explore. And, what reveals more about our society than the monuments we leave behind? I began doing research, looking at academic articles about the history you can reveal in cemeteries, the cultural mores of cemeteries, etc. It’s all fascinating, by the way. However, it soon became clear that I would have a large group for seminars, and there was simply no practical way to take 17 students on a mini-field trip for half the morning. I had to revise.
So, I began thinking about what else I’d come across in my research that was interesting. And, I kept coming back to the memento mori. Memento mori are the keepsakes of the dead that, throughout history, cultures have utilized to keep grief at bay. The Victorians, especially, had a rich tradition of memento mori, some of which seem macabre to us, but all of which were designed to honor the memory of a passed loved one. Within the structure and images of their “yucky” keepsakes, there was a tradition of love and loss. And, really, isn’t that just as interesting (if not more so) than a headstone? So, we spent our first day of seminar looking at the rituals and traditions for handling the dead which several different cultures have engaged in. We discussed how those rituals assist the living in the process of letting go and finding peace. We also looked at some examples of what happens to culture and society when the rituals can’t be met (like during disasters and plagues). It was an interesting day.
Today, we’re going to discuss the dying process, itself. I’m focusing the lesson on hospice and palliative care, to think about and explore the ways in which we, as a society, help the dying transition, and the ways in which that affects those left behind. I have been so moved throughout the research process for this day: the people who have entered hospice care and keep blogs about it, the hospice workers who have written articles about creating dignity for the ill, and the doctors engaged in research about making the end of life as gentle a transition as possible. I look forward to sharing some of it, and hearing the thoughts of my students on this topic.
Next week, my seminar will talk about grief. How do we, the living, those left behind, process the pain of loss? What are our coping mechanisms? What eases the transitions for us? How do we avoid long-term depression in the face of grief? How do we find peace?
I was initially hesitant to present this seminar; I was afraid it had the potential to be met with immaturity and a lack of respect. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the students’ interest and sober discussion.
I certainly haven’t ended up at the place I thought I would have when I began the planning process for this seminar; but as we try to impress upon the students, it is the process of learning that has the most value. Engaging in an adaptable academic process is something that the faculty at MVGS hope we both model and convey.
Any of your MVGS faculty are always happy to answer questions about our seminar topics, and we hope that you’ll consider presenting a seminar, also. We always welcome guest presenters, and we know many parents have unique capabilities and areas of expertise. Teaching seminars is a wonderful experience, and either myself, Dr. Williamson, or any faculty member would be happy to discuss the possibilities with you.