Project Description

Life & Death

RCHA 2019-2022 Project: Life & Death

The Small Life and the Big Death editedThis three-year seminar [2019-2022] explores what it means to be alive or dead.  It will consider the legal, social, political, religious, and ethical ramifications of medical and scientific developments as they relate to the creation of life and the end of it.  While the impact of these changes in the medical field seem obvious, the broader impact on how life and death play out across a range of other spheres of influence creates a vast web of intertwining conflicts. Using a cross-cultural and multidisciplinary lens, the seminar will grapple with perennial questions such as:


  •      When does life begin or end and why does it matter?
  •      Who gets to decide what constitutes life or death and in what contexts?
  •      What is the relationship between life, death, and being human and/or being a person?
  •      When, if ever, should secular institutions embrace or condone religious definitions of life or death?

For centuries people have tried to understand the nature of life and death.  Rituals have surrounded birth and burial.  Scholars have studied the relationship between life and death the living and the dead, as well as how individuals and institutions have tried to govern the beginning and end of life.  They have focused on the rituals surrounding the deathbed and funeral, the shape and function of commemoration, the importance of the Afterlife and of Purgatory, and the boundaries between life and death.  They have also explored life, death, and the value of bodies in slavery and labor camps as bodies were commodified and a monetary value assigned based on age, gender, health and the demand of the market.  Similar breadths of scholarship can be traced to studies of the beginning of life where scholars have been especially fascinated with the history of pregnancy conception and the fetus, as well as the rise and implications of the marketplace as it relates to assisted reproduction.