Saturday, October 31, 2009

So......Now we've been in Bath for appoximately 5 1/2 weeks.  I've had enough time to settle into my new life as a student at the University of Bath and the experience has been very positive.  On that note, I thought I might write a little bit about what it is like to be a student of death studies.

My program, as most of you know is entitled: A Post Graduate, Course Taught Master's Degree of Science in Death and Society- Msc.  My reason for choosing this particular program is that there is none like it in the U.S..  In addition, the sociological research advanced within this field was generated mostly by scholars in the UK throughout the past 20 years.  With that said, I must acknowledge that there is indeed a very broad amount of literature in the States that focuses on issues of death and dying.  However, most of it is produced by scholars who, by and large, emphasize a medical or psycho-social approach to such matters.  Therefore, many significant authors producing work on death and dying in the States typically fall into certain professional categories such as: doctors, nurses, palliative care specialists, social workers and psychiatrists/psychologists.  In the words of Austen Powers "That's not my bag baby!"

No, I prefer looking at issues of death and dying via the sociological lens.  This is to say that I am interested in how we generate meanings of death and dying via social structures, institutions and various other spheres that exhibit social organization.  Examples include (but are not limited to) families, hospitals, medical centers, medical examiner offices, churches, hospices, bereavement agencies, bereavement support groups, funeral homes, nursing homes, morgues, cemetaries (yes, cemetaries too), cremain (ashes) scattering tours, racial groups, ethnic groups, societies, cultures (broad or underground) and state departments that may be concerned with regulation or legislation (e.g. The Human Tissue Act- 2004).

So what has come out of this studious experience?  Currently I am enrolled in 3 courses.
They are:
1. The Social Context of Death and Dying.
In this course, we've looked at the ways in which primarily western society has historically responded to or changed in the face of death and dying.  For instance, we've asked questions such as: How have economic structures, medicalization, and secularization impacted the ways that we deal with death and dying in contemporary modern society?
2.  Ritual and Belief
This course has focussed on a number of issues and requires an integration of the sociological lens with those of anthropology, history, religion and archeology.  This is actually quite fascinating as it has involved trips to cemeteries, abbeys and a crematorium.  We ask questions like: What cross-cultural commonalities exist in the ways that we memorialize the dead.  How does corruption of the corpse relate to or impact the ritualization of funeral practices?  In what ways does the dead body become commodified via the funeral industry?
3.  Research Issues.  Ways we can validate, determine, and exercise approaches to researching in death studies.  As a research course, I don't have much to say about it that might be of a more general interest.

This past week I handed in a short (2000 word) essay.  The purpose of the essay was to help us get our wheels turning and think about how we might approach our course writing assessments.  This essay won't count towards my grade, but it was nonetheless a fun and challenging assignment.  My topic was on Cryonic Preservation (this involves the process of preserving the body of newly deceased individual in a vat of liquid nitrogen in the hopes that one day, medical technology and nano-scientific advancement with allow the person to be thawed out, physiologically restored and brought back to life).  Although it sounds a bit Frankensteinish if not down right, totally led me to wonder about how it could be happening, how it is happening and how, as a movement- it is growing.

Aside from all of this, we generally have a really good time.  I am fortunate to be part of a group of folks who represent various professions including: nursing, palliative care, social work, funeral directing, potential coroner, real estate, and sociology/philosophy.

Okay, that's it for now.  It's Halloween and there's some good, deathly entertainment on the tele.

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