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One Class, One Day: Death and Immortality

Class probes different takes on what comes hereafter

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

After accused gunman James Holmes (above) allegedly killed 12 people and injured 58 others, making national headlines, current events factored into an age-old debate during a CAS summer seminar probing religious and philosophical takes on mortality and afterlife.

Mass murder is generally not a welcome academic topic. But for Immortality and Death, a College of Arts & Sciences summer seminar probing religious and philosophical takes on mortality and afterlife, James Holmes’ July 20 shooting frenzy that left a dozen people dead at a Colorado Cineplex seemed unavoidable.

“I wanted to discuss today the events in Aurora, Colorado,” lecturer A. David Lewis told his class. One student recalled hearing the news after someone had bought her a ticket to see The Dark Knight Rises, the film on the screen when Holmes opened fire. Another contrasted the gruesomeness of the crime with the recreational setting chosen by the killer. Yet another commented that the murders shattered his viewing of the movie: “It was harder this time to look at mass murders happening on screen.”

This communal pondering of death, while not academic, was quintessentially human. And that’s the point of this class. Whether it has students reacting to real-life tragedy, writing their own funeral services, hearing the true story of a doctor who tried to prove the soul’s existence by weighing people at the moment of death, or studying great religious thinkers, Lewis’ course pivots off the premise, as he puts it, that “America has a phobia and fetish with death,” a subject that has preoccupied humanity since ancient times. Views of mortality and immortality among the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims—Lewis surveys them all, hoping to “make the afterlife a bit more visible” to his students.

The class is not all gloom-and-death talk. Commenting on the funeral service exercise, Lewis (GRS’11) marveled how “none of you mentioned how much your funeral would cost. Some of you did it up—I don’t know where you’re getting the money.” A few, confusing the dates of their obituary and send-off, caused some chuckles: “The funeral service was happening days before you died.”

Neophytes may be surprised by the mixing of ideas Lewis describes among religions that seem to have separate and distinct creedal silos. Long before Jesus, Egyptians believed the dead would be judged in the realm of the god Anubis, while Greco-Roman mythology depicted an afterlife in which heroes were rewarded and the evil punished. For those who wonder why anyone would bother studying the unknowable, Lewis throws in near-death experiences and spiritualism, the belief that we can know about the afterlife by communicating with spirits of the deceased.

The death of Socrates (painted here by Jacques-Louis David) is one of the topics in A. David Lewis’ summer course Immortality and Death. Photo by Wally Gobetz

The class also discusses agnostic ideas of an afterlife—in the sense of leaving a legacy—and religions that don’t posit a hereafter of fluffy clouds and angels. Buddhists believe that life is suffering rooted in desire and that happiness requires letting go of those desires and finding a way “to just exist, like a rock or like water, in a way that doesn’t require personality, consciousness,” Lewis said. “You’re reabsorbed, or one with the universe. The joke is that a Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything.’”

The Colorado mayhem was a momentary detour from a class discussion of Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates’s impending execution is a springboard for the philosopher’s argument that we have immortal souls and that human reason can prove that. Lewis briefly tried to teach the book with the Socratic method—“Who wrote it? What’s it about? What did he do?”—before confessing with a smile how annoying it sounded. He contrasted the Platonic/Socratic indifference to how things started with Christianity’s explanation—God is the “prime mover” who created all things.

The syllabus also includes fictional considerations of death and afterlife, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven to Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned, a novel about a teenaged girl in hell. The last drew the interest of two women seated near us during a lunchtime interview. They asked to see his copy (he also offered them Plato—“Bring it on,” one replied with faux enthusiasm). Meanwhile, a man at another table was moved to praise Albom.

The interest of those bystanders underlines the course’s raison d’être: we all think about death. Yet amid Plato’s profound musings about the soul, some of the young people taking Lewis’ class professed greater fear of immortality than of death.

Hannah Corwin, a part-time Metropolitan College student and a practicing Catholic, said the course has given her “more of an open mind on what could or could not come,” and made her “less scared when I view death, because it used to freak me out. But now, it’s a little less freaky. I guess living forever could seem a lot more terrifying. To see everything change and to be stuck at the same place, never really evolving—that seems worse than dying.”

“I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife or soul,” said Colleen Dunn, an Ayer, Mass., high schooler, “but that’s because I don’t want there to be one. I’m rooting for nonexistence.”

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