Dan Leviton taught me Death Education at the University of Maryland’s summer school in 1996 when I was topping up my credits for graduation from Oberlin College. It was the best class I’ve ever taken, and the notes that I took then have formed the backbone for the death chapter in Untangling the Web.
Here’s a (draft) excerpt from the introduction to that chapter:
It was the tail end of my undergraduate degree, and I had a few more credits to complete before I could graduate. They were effectively free credits; I had already completed the necessary requirements for my psychology major, and so I could take whatever I wanted. My college, being a liberal arts school, offered all kinds of options: world religions, clown skills, even a class on The Beatles. But rather than take any of them, I decided to head home for the summer and enrol in Death Studies, a course about the psychological, social, political, philosophical, historical, medical, religious, cultural, legal and economic issues that surround the end of life.
Perhaps it was the dormant connection I felt to a previous part of me (I fancied myself a bit of a Goth when I was in high school. I suppose I was actually goth-lite: I only wore the striped tights and black eyeliner, leaving the Sisters of Mercy albums to the real lifestylers). Perhaps it was a reflection of a life-long obsession that most of us share. It was, in the end, the most fascinating class I have ever taken, and I still, almost two decades and countless relocations later, have the notes that I hand wrote over those six weeks.
What I learned from the professor, the now deceased Dan Leviton, is a basic philosophical tenet: death distill us into our psychological and physiological component parts.
On the one hand, death is the denouement in the autobiography of Me. Our minds, our souls, our psychologies also cease to be. Now this is by no means the final chapter in identity, but because we’re no longer able to produce anything new ourselves - despite what spiritualists and others interested in the paranormal believe - who we are is at the liberty of the imaginations of our survivors. When we depart this mortal coil, we step down as the authors of ourselves - the uploaders of our photographs, the creators of our status updates - and continue life as social phenomena, based on other people’s memories and interpretations of what we’ve left behind. Nowadays, we survive as Facebook memorial sites. And anyone can write their versions of our stories on our posthumous walls for everyone to see.
On the other hand, we are in a constant battle to keep our bodies - frail and mortal - functioning like well-oiled machines. Our cells would turn to mush if we lived forever, explained Dan during the medical part of the the class. Our bodies are not built to survive. For this, medical research has provided intelligence (“the science bit”), but not solutions. As Colin Parkes, one of the world’s leading psychiatrists in the field of bereavement describes it, “science may delay death but it can neither prevent it nor can it tell us anything about what, if anything, lies beyond death or what we can do to prepare for that transition.”
More on Death Education - including Dan’s important role in it and the institutions that currently offer courses - is at the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.
Golly. Rest in Peace, Dan.