Life and Death

The Small Life and the Big Death

Project Directors Kim Mutcherson and Johanna Schoen


This two-year seminar [2019-2021] 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.   


Since the 1960s, medical technology has greatly altered our control over life and death.  Until the late 1960s, death was defined as cardiac respiratory failure – the heart stopped and a person ceased breathing. This changed with the development of ventilators, which made it possible to keep people alive who could not breathe on their own.  The ability of machines to breath for a person who could not do so on her own, coupled with the advent of organ transplantation, created a twilight space in which those whose organs were to be donated could be kept “alive” on ventilators.  Suddenly, death defined as a heart that had stopped beating and a person who was not breathing lacked sufficient sophistication. Just as medical technology has transformed the end of life, it has similarly transformed the beginning of life. Prior to 1969, all creation of human life took place inside a woman’s body. The first extra-corporeal fertilization of a human egg by human sperm dramatically changed the landscape of reproduction. Since that time, the beginning of human life has been brought outside the body and placed partially in human hands and under human control through the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and accompanying technologies. Medical technology has allowed the commodification of reproduction and separated it from the traditional two-parent, opposite-sex, biological couple.  Medicine is thus a critical sphere in which one can trace the slippery reality of what it means to be dead.


If the existing scholarly work illustrates anything, it is that the opposition between living and dead bodies was never absolute and that the desire to manipulate the beginning and end of life, be it through rituals or medical technology, has been a constant.  For much of history, it was near impossible to identify the transition between life and death.  And these days, with our medical advances, the boundary has become even more blurred.


The seminar will deal with life and death as disparate topics worthy of separate discussion and as topics where discussion about the relationship between life and death is warranted and fruitful. For that reason, we will organize the seminar by treating the topic of life in the fall semester of 2019 and the topic of death in the spring semester of 2020 to broadly focus on life and death respectively, over time and across space.  We will trace the beliefs and rituals surrounding the beginning and end of life from the ancient to the present, with particular emphasis on comparative approaches from around the globe.