Does death have a history? Teaching the changing nature of a universal experience

The history of death and dying provides a useful window into approaches toward cultural and intellectual history, topics that students might not normally associate with history at all. By combining demographic and medical history with the history of beliefs and attitudes, students practice drawing connections between the social, cultural, and material contexts of "human nature." Starting with learning how to read demographic data (age pyramids, life expectancy tables, etc) we dig into changing patterns of death: who dies when, at what age, and from what causes. We then investigate changing ideas and practices relating to dying and the dead, from the earliest archaeological record to ancient societies in Egypt and China, to experiences of epidemics in medieval Europe and Africa. The relatively constant demographics of death up to the 1600s help us recognize the deep variety of ways of approaching the phenomenon. Then, when we turn to the early modern period, we are better prepared to understand the effects of dramatic changes in mortality. For this, we focus on two separate dynamics: the way improved nutrition and other developments facilitated the decline in infant and child mortality in parts of Europe and the way, at approximately the same time, the transatlantic slave trade produced the first documented large-scale geographic disparity in mortality. We end by looking at modernist and contemporary developments, including the romanticization of older approaches to death, the consequences of the medicalization of death, to fantasies of defeating death through technology.