Welcome to Death: A Human History

Without death, we wouldn't have anything. There would be no need for a "next generation," so we wouldn't have children. Not needing children, nature would not have come up with sex, so we wouldn't have that either. Immortal, there would be no need to eat or to do anything today we could put off until tomorrow. Without death, life would lose all its urgency, all its savor, and all its color. Death, then, is foundational. All that we are, we are because we die. The family we cling to, the memories we make, the dreams we have, whether they unfold or wither, all that we do has value because our time is limited. Our mortality, which can seem like a curse, is in fact our greatest gift, or at least, it is inseparable from life itself: We bother to live because we are going to die. Instead of denying or fearing Death, then, we should face and explore it.

Like any human phenomenon, Death can be historicized, which is to say put into the context of its peculiar place and time. Certainly we do not die as we once did, nor do we make the same meanings in dying. No contemporary general would exhort his troops as Frederick the Great was supposed to have done: "Hunde, wollt ihr euwig leben?" ("Dogs! Would you live forever?") Our deaths, then, are not as much ours as we think they are or want them to be. The way we die, and the meanings we make in dying, belong to the times and circumstances in which we live. Even Death must bow to historical circumstance. Death is gendered, Death is raced, and the question, "Who dies, where, when, and why?" is one of the greatest social justice questions in the world.

Even so, Death is King. Long or short, fair or not, all lives end. Every thirteen seconds -- roughly the time it takes to read this sentence -- an American gives up the ghost, quits the mortal coil, and joins the choir invisible. Raced or not, gendered or not, historicized or not, Death levels us all.

Welcome to death and dying. If you ever have questions, don't hesitate to contact me.

Required Texts

DH Certificate Credit

This class counts as a Praxis class for the Digital Humanities Undergraduate Certificate. The digital methods and tools we will use in this class support the larger goals of the certificate to build digital research skills and digital literacy at the undergraduate level. For more information about other eligible classes or pursuing this certificate visit: https://digi.uga.edu/certificate/.

Class Schedule


In Part I, "Introducing Death & Dying," we lay the foundation for the entire course, touching upon the history of Death from the varied perspectives of spirituality, culture, medicine, and public health. By the end of the section, you should be able to answer: What is the difference between death and dying? What does it to mean to take a historical approach to death and dying? In what sense is mortality the foundation of, well, everything? What were death and dying like in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, and how is all that still built into our biochemistry? What is a "death system" and what did the earliest death systems look like? Who wins the Kellehear/Becker debate: Is culture driven by the denial of death or the preparation for an afterlife? Does religiosity really decline as mortality improves? How have past cultures differently imagined the beginning and end of themselves, and of time itself?

Introductions (Aug. 14)

Foundations (Aug. 16)
Reading: "The Social Functions of Death," "Sex and Death," and "Death System" from Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || Thomas W. Laqueur, "Introduction," from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

Death & Dying in the Stone Age (Aug. 18)
Reading: Allan Kellehear, A Social History of Dying, pp. 11-65

Death & Dying in the Bronze Age (Aug. 21)
Reading: Steven Pinker, "A Foreign Country" from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Due: Personal Obituary and Epitaph

Thinking Like a 'Death Studies' Student I: Reimagining Columbus (Aug. 23)
Reading: Christopher Columbus, "Journal of the First Voyage" [excerpts] || Bartholomew de Las Casas, "Short Report of the Destruction of the Indies" || Charles C. Mann, "How the Potato Changed the World" [offsite link]

Thinking Like a 'Death Studies' Student II: Byromania and the Coming Zombocalypse (Aug. 25)
Reading: "Zombocalypse Now: Why We Can't Get Enough of Zombies" from the blog, Here Lie the Remains || "Imagining a World Without Humans," interview with Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, on Science Friday, September 7, 2007 || Explore the "Voluntary Human Extinction Movement" website


In part II, we discuss Death as a collective problem for the state, focusing on what we die of, how that has changed over time, and how we try to control death through public health policy. By the end of the section, you should be comfortable answering: What have been the major threats to public health since 1700? What were the earliest attempts to regulate public health and how did they evolve over time? What are the origins of the coroner's office and death investigation in the United States? Why is death registration important, and how did it emerge and evolve over the centuries? What are the major governmental health organzations, and how did they emerge and evolve over time? What would you include in a short history of public health regulation in the United States from the U.S. Public Health Service (1798) to the Centers for Disease Control (1946)? Why did our health care system evolve as it did, and how does it compare to other health care systems in the world? What are the major threats to public health today?

Introducing "Public" Health (Aug. 28)
Reading: "Public Health," Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782, pp. 13-79.

Love in the Time of Cholera I (Aug. 30)
Reading: Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, pp. 1-109.

Love in the Time of Cholera II (Sept. 1)
Reading: Johnson, The Ghost Map, pp. 111-256

Labor Day! (Sept. 4)

The History of Death Registration (Sept. 6)
Reading: "The Mortality Census" at CSI:Dixie || "The Death Certificate," Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

The History of Death Investigation I (Sept. 8)
Assignment: Read the CSI:D project assignment and come prepared to talk about your results.

The History of Death Investigation II (Sept. 13)
Reading: Jeffrey M. Jentzen, "Rockefeller Philanthropy and the Harvard Dream" from Death Investigation in the United States: Coroners, Medical Examiners, and the Pursuit of Medical Certainty || Jessica Sachs, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, And The Struggle To Pinpoint Time Of Death [excerpt] | "Medical Examiners In America: A Dysfunctional System," Huffington Post, February 2, 2011

The Rise of Life Insurance (Sept. 15)
Reading: Sharon Ann Murphy, "Life Insurance in the United States Before World War I," EH.net

Containing Contagion, 1918 (Sept. 18)
Reading: Jeffery Taubenberger and David Morens, "1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics"

Rise of the CDC, NIH, and WHO (Sept. 20)
Reading: "Basic Gun Violence Research is Seriously Underfunded," Associated Press || "United States — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law," GunPolicy.org || "11 Facts About Gun Violence in the United States", Vox || "The Math of Mass Shootings, Washington Post

Our Current Health Care System I (Sept. 22)
Assignment: Reid, The Healing of America, pp. 1-103 || "35 Years of American Deaths" || "Why are White Death Rates Rising?" || "The Opioid Epidemic, Explained," Vox, August 3, 2017 || "Decline in economic status to blame for 'death gap' in middle-aged whites, study finds," Philly Voice || "America’s opioid epidemic is so bad it’s causing average life expectancy to drop," Vox

Our Current Health Care System II (Sept. 25)
Assignment: Reid, The Healing of America, pp. 104-268 || Atul Gawande, "Is Health Care a Right?" New Yorker, October 2, 2017

Whose Lives Matter? (Sept. 27)
Reading: Jill Leovy, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America [excerpt] || "What the Data Really Says about Police and Racial Bias," Vanity Fair, July 14, 2016 . || "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017"

First Exam Review (Sept. 29)



In part III, we move from learning by discussion to learning by doing. HIST 4090 is cross-listed under DIGI (Digital Humanities Research and Innovation), a prefix reserved for courses where students work collaboratively on active digital research projects. In this case, we will be building a website, from scratch to launch, devoted to a large sample of death certificates taken in Athens, Georgia between 1918 and 1927.

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 4)
Reading: "Cause of Death," Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || "Deaths: Final Data for 2013," National Vital Statistics Reports (64:2) || "Here's a map that shows each state's top cause of death," PBS News Hour || "Making the Right Call, Even in Death," New York Times, July 2, 2013
Assignment: Read the Death Certificate assignment and come to class having thought about what features you would like to see in our web project.
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 6)
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 9)
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 11)
Assignment: Work on death certificate project
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 13)
Assignment: Work on death certificate project
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 16)
Assignment: Work on death certificate project
Note: Unsupervised field or lab work

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 18)
Assignment: Work on death certificate project
Note: Unsupervised field or lab work

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 20)
Assignment: Work on death certificate project
Note: Unsupervised field or lab work

Death Certificate Project (Oct. 23)
Due: Dress rehearsal and final tweaks
Note: Meet at DigiLab

Public Presentation (Oct. 26)
Due: Come prepared to give our public death certificate project presentation!
Note: This is not our usual meeting time. We will meet at DigiLab Thursday, October 26 @ 4:00PM.


In Part IV of the course, we focus on death and dying as a cultural problem, the emphasis falling less on what we die of than on the meanings we make in dying. Here we treat Death as a problem of the spirit, the conscience, and the will; here we examine how mortality underpins all meaning. Questions in this section include: What rituals do cultures typically create to deal with Death as an existential phenomenon and a physical reality? What are 'American deathways,' and how have they changed over time? How do many cultural rituals borrow from, and shape, Death's meaning? How is death racialized and gendered in such rituals? How have the funeral and hospice industries evolved? What is dying like now? How should it be? How does the 'spectacle' of Death shape and reveal a culture that is processing an act of assassination or terrorism? Why are we fascinated by such things as serial killers, sociopaths, psychopaths, and the zombie apocalypse? What are the major arguments advanced in support and in opposition to the death penalty and the right-to-die?

Ritual Foundations and the Duel as Social Drama (Oct. 30)
Reading: "One Last Thing Before I Go," This American Life, September 23, 2016 || Voices of America, New Republic, March 28, 2017 || Burr-Hamilton Correspondence || Kenneth S. Greenberg, "The Duel as Social Drama" || Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling || Drunk History, vol. 1, "The Duel" || Ten Duel Commandments || Your Obedient Servant || World Was Wide Enough || Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells your Story || Lyrics to the musical Hamilton
Note: Meet in original classroom having read the Death by Podcast Assignment

Processing War (Nov. 1)
Reading: Drew Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Death by Podcast Project (Nov. 3)
Assignment: Work on death by podcast project
Note: Unsupervised studio or lab work

WWI and the Irony of Death (Nov. 6)
Reading: W.J. Currin letters; Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, pp. 3-35 OR Eric J. Leed, No Man's Land: Combat & Identity in World War I, pp. 1-38

Death by Podcast Project (Nov. 8)
Assignment: Work on death by podcast project
Note: Unsupervised studio or lab work

Death by Podcast Project (Nov. 10)
Assignment: Work on death by podcast project
Note: Unsupervised studio or lab work

Whose Life is It Anyway?: Evolution of the Death Penalty and the Right to Die (Nov. 13)
Reading: United States Executions from 1608-2002 || "Should the death penalty be banned as a form of punishment?" at BalancedPolitics.org || "Capital Punishment," Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || Judith Shulevitz, "The Lethality of Loneliness, The New Republic, May 13, 2013 || "Right to Die, Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || Christina Symanski, "Quality vs. Quantity," Life Paralyzed blog, April 19, 2011 || "Abortion," Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

Evolution of the Funeral Industry and Hospice Care (Nov. 15)
Reading: "The Funeral Industry" and Hospice in Historical Perspective" in Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || "The Town Where Everyone Likes to Talk About Death" || Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End [excerpt]

Psycho Killers, Qu'est-ce que c'est (Nov. 17)
Reading: "Serial Killers" Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || The Serial Killer Detector," The New Yorker, November 20, 2017 || "Can You Use This Data Set to Find Serial Killers?" Slate, December 14, 2017 || "A True Crime Veteran on Our Fascination with Serial Killers," The New Yorker, June 20, 2016 || "A Psychologist Explains the Limits of Human Compassion," Vox, August 8, 2017 || "Charles Manson’s Science Fiction Roots," The New Republic, November 21, 2017

Thanksgiving! (Nov. 20-24)

Terrorism and "Spectacular" Death (Nov. 27)
Reading: Jim Dwyer, "In Love With Death," New York Times, September 8, 2011

Suicide (Nov. 29)
Reading: Prologue of "Loopholes," This American Life, episode #473 || "Military Suicides Hit Record High in 2012," All Things Considered, January 14, 2013 || "Suicide," "Suicide, Basics," "Suicide, Influences and Factors," "Suicide Over the Life Span," and "Suicide Types," all from Encyclopedia of Death and Dying || "Suicide: The Quiet Haunting," Huffington Post, October 21, 2015

The End of the World as We Know It (Dec. 1)
Reading: "Why are Dystopian Films on the Rise Again?," JSTOR Daily, November 2014

Mortal Remains (Dec. 4)
Reading: Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers || Weighing the alternatives: Urban Death Project || Tibetan Sky Burial || Criminal Podcast, "All the Time in the World," June 1, 2017 || China's Mysterious Sky Graveyards"
Assignment: Come to class having given careful thought to what you would like done with your own corpse.

Podcast Clinic (Optional) (Dec. 5)
Assignment: Come to class if you need help/final inspiration on your podcast project.

FINAL EXAM / PODCAST PARTY (Dec. 13) 8:00AM - 11:00AM

Due: Take Home Final


Participation: Hamilton Holt described the typical academic lecture as "that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the professor's notebooks are transferred ... to the pages of the student's notebook without passing through the mind of either." For a class to be pedagogically defensible there must be a reason we all make the effort to physically drag our carcasses in to class. Expect, then, to be active participants in this class, and fully expect that I will quiz and call on you by name to ask you for your thoughts.

Post-Mortems: To facilitate our discussions, each student should bring to each class a set of three comments or questions prompted by the day's readings. If conversation flags, I will call on folks, and I will always collect your post-mortems.

Epitaph and Obituary: Prepare both a short epitaph (the inscription on your tombstone) and a 250-word obituary that you would like to be read at your funeral. (You can be aspirational, but try to be realistic!) To find the date of your funeral, use any one of the myriad Internet death-clocks (here, here or here). For inspiration on obit writing, you might listen to: "For New York Times Obit Writers Death is Never Solicitous of a Deadline"

CSI:Dixie Project: Browse ten cases from the CSI:D database, and write a one-page paper on what you think those cases suggest about life and death in the nineteenth-century South. (Include the node IDs in your work cited.) Trying seeing if any of your cases made the papers. Do not be discouraged if not, but you score a hit, bring in the news article(s).

Georgia Death Certificate Project: The entire class will be working together to create a new digital humanities website devoted to these Georgia Death Certificates. Together we will create our data fields, enter the data, track down the graves of some of the deceased, analyze our data, write pieces to explain the historical context of death and dying in Athens in the 1920s, and figure out how to present everything that we've learned to the public. At the end of October we will give a public presentation formally launching our new website.

Death by Podcast Project: As you can undoubtedly tell from many of our 'reading' assignments, I am an unabashed fan of the podcast form. For your final assignment you will work in self-selected teams of three to five to create your own single-episode podcast devoted to some historical aspect of death and dying in the United States. Topics must be approved by me. At the end of the term, we will have a listening party to see what all the teams came up with.

Exams: There will be two exams in this class, a midterm and a final. Aspects of the final will be cumulative. Ample instruction will be given on what to expect on the exams.


Participation: 10%

Post-Mortems & Obituary: 10%

CSI:Dixie Project: 5%

Death Certificate Project: 20%

Midterm: 20%

Death by Podcast Project: 25%

Final Exam: 10%

Contacting Me

I am happy to meet with students at my office (111 LeConte Hall) on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:00p to 3:30p. To schedule a meeting at another time, please feel free to call (706-542-8848) or email me.