Religious Studies 12: Religious Approaches to Death

Instructor: Evan Berry (

Office hours: Tuesday 2:00-3:00 and Thursday 2:00-3:00 (HSSB 3057)

Class meets: MTWRF 3:30-4:50 (Building 387 Room 104)


Online Readings:


Course Objectives:


The primary goal of this course is to help you to think critically and be well informed about religion in the modern world.  To such and end, this course has three basic foci: 1) an introduction to religious studies; 2) a broad survey of mythological and ritual treatments of death across cultures; and 3) an analysis of religious approaches to death in the modern era. This final area of inquiry forms the core component for our study, exploring the tension between tradition and innovation that animates contemporary religious life. This course demands that you keep an open mind about a wide variety of religious beliefs and behaviors, though open-mindedness about religion does not mean that we intend to study religion uncritically. Only by suspending our judgment can we learn to think empathetically about religion, and only through empathy can we come to understand the complexity and variety of religions.


Course Requirements:


In addition to attendance and class participation two exams and two assignments are required. The midterm and final exams include material from both the readings and lectures, and please take note that I may occasionally use pop quizzes to ensure that you are doing the reading.

Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California, All Rights Reserved


The first assignment is a media response paper, which requires that you find an article that directly pertains to the topics covered in this course. Any newspaper or (reputable) online journalism article about funerals, suicide, euthanasia, cremation, eco-burial, military or government memorializations, the afterlife, etcetera is appropriate. Your assignment is to write a two-page analysis of the article’s content putting to use the tools and ideas you’ve gained in this course. Specifically, this assignment provides you an opportunity to consider how the media functions in propagating particular notions of death and dying. Your attentive reading of the article you select should ask: What is being said about the relationship of death and morality? How does the article portray the relationship between religious approaches to death and other social forces (e.g. economics, politics, or medicine)? The purpose of this exercise is not to simply summarize; rather, this paper should analyze and explain the arguments being made in your chosen media.


The second assignment requires that you conduct an interview with a respected elder, clergy member, or another person familiar with death, its meaning and the social practices surrounding it. Please do not interview friends or family unfamiliar with religious issues or considerations of human mortality. Your interview should establish the interviewee’s religious background, experiences with death and dying, personal beliefs about why we die and what happens after death, and their view of what should be done when they themselves die. After thoroughly describing your interviewee’s answers, you should conclude by comparing their answers with what you have learned in class. For instance, does your interviewee hold orthodox or unorthodox views? What are the similarities and difference between their practices and beliefs and others in their same religious tradition? Are the differences important or marginal? This paper should be 4-5 pages in length, and will be graded based on how thoroughly you cover the required topics and in terms of the writing quality.  If you would like help improving the quality of your writing, you are welcome to take advantage of my office hours. Proofreading and tutoring are also available through the Campus Learning Assistance Services (


Grading System:

15% Attendance

15% Media Response

15% Midterm Exam

20% Final Exam

25% Term Paper



Required Texts:

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Western Attitudes Toward Death by Phillipe Aries

Online Readings:





Monday, June 25th

Tuesday, June 26th

Wednesday, June 27th

Thursday, June 28th

Friday, June 29th

Monday, July 2nd

Tuesday, July 3rd

Wednesday, July 4th

Thursday, July 5th

Friday, July 6th

Monday, July 9th

Tuesday, July 10th

Wednesday, July 11th

Thursday, July 12th

Friday, July 13th

Monday, July 16th

Tuesday, July 17th

Wednesday, July 18th

Thursday, July 19th

Friday, July 20th

Monday, July 23rd

Tuesday, July 24th

Wednesday, July 25th

Thursday, July 26th

Friday, July 27th

Monday, July 30th

Wednesday, August 1st

Thursday, August 2nd

Friday, August 3rd