University Catch Up

When I first told Twitter that I'd been accepted onto my master's in Death, Religion and Culture, I got a fair few tweets asking me to share details about my course. Initially I intended to do monthly updates but it turns out that master's study is intense. Who knew, huh? Not only that but some of the concepts I've been learning are really complex and I thought going into fairly detailed ins and outs might be a bit heavy. Having said that, I do still want to share some of what's been going on so here's a (not very) brief outline.
Death Master's Degree
I'm studying full time so I'm taking three modules in each semester. It's too much, to be honest, and although I'm perfectly able to keep up, I feel like I'm rushing through without having the opportunity to really savour my studies. Still, I can't do much about that now so three modules it is. They are Contemporary Approaches to Death and Dying, Death in World Religions and Theology, Philosophy and Ethics of Death.


This is the base module so for those who are studying part time, this is the only one they're currently taking. Since the University of Winchester are very keen to give everybody the opportunity to learn, they've accepted a lot of people who don't have previous university experience. Because of this, the first six weeks of this module were taken up with study skills, learning how to reference, summarise a text and write academically. I was glad for this since it's been a fair few years since I graduated and I was concerned about how much I could remember, but it did mean that by the time we started actually learning about death, we only had five weeks until our first assignments needed to be handed in. 

Now we're finally onto the death theory and it's fascinating. We've started by looking at different theories of why humans have beliefs about death and carry out funeral rites. Most of the work is based around a text called Death, Ritual and Belief, which is very easy to read and engaging, and forms the perfect starting point for further reading since it briefly discusses a huge number of different cultures, from ancient Ugandan tribes to modern British Gypsies. Practically every community on earth has some form of funeral ritual and the general consensus is that it's because we're so overwhelmed by not knowing what happens after death that we make up beliefs and rituals to convince ourselves that we've got it under control and soothe the inherent fear. For my first assignment, I've decided to look at a theorist called Durkheim who argued that mourning rituals are for the benefit of the community rather than the deceased. This goes hand-in-hand with the theories of Van Gennep and Turner who believed that rites of passage, such as funerals, cause a shift in the social structure of the communities that are affected.

For the rest of the semester, we'll be studying typologies of death (nope, I have no idea what that means either) and I need to visit a funeral home to see how the practical aspects of death link to the theories I've read up on.

Unlike the other modules, we have a semester every week to share our thoughts on the reading and tasks. I have three assignments for this module: 

1. 1000 word draft essay on the strengths and weaknesses of a theory of my choice. I've chosen to look at Durkheim in the context of contemporary British funeral services. This is interesting because we write part of the essay and then for the rest of it we just include the plan. The essay is marked, we're given feedback and then we go away for a month to work on writing it up fully.

2. 3000 word essay based on the draft. This is where we complete the essay, using our feedback to make it as amazing as possible. 

3. 1000 word field report on our funeral home visit, identifying links between the practice and the theory.


I've absolutely loved this module! We started straight away so it was the first proper studying I experienced. All the reading is super accessible and it's aimed at those who have limited understanding of each religion. My tutor recommended I buy a book called Religions in the Modern World since I don't come from a theology background so I could read up on general information about each religion before looking specifically into the death rituals. However, the reading has been so accessible that I haven't needed to do any additional research at all, just the odd Google or clarifying concepts in seminars.

As I write this, I've studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, the Shoah (Holocaust), Islam and Zoroastrianism. It's fascinating to see the links between different religions and I've found out some really interesting information that I never would have even considered, such as the commercialisation of death seen in both the funeral industry in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi and the memorials for the Shoah. As an aside, I was completely unaware that Holocaust is an inappropriate term since the biblical definition is "burnt offering" and instead we've been encouraged to get into the habit of using the word Shoah instead. Our seminars are every three weeks and give us the opportunity to discuss the readings and clarify anything we're stuck on.

For the rest of the module, we've just got our assignment to work on. Much like Contemporary Approaches to Death and Dying, we hand in a 1000 word draft essay and then have a month to complete the full 3000 word assignment. I struggled with this as first as there is no essay question and instead we need to decide on our own completely from scratch. After talking to my tutor, I've decided to focus mine on how effective Schindler's List and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are in English schools to teach about the Shoah (the correct answer is "they're not"). This particular assignment is quite complex as I have to fit a lot of information in and I'm finding it a challenge but I'm going to do what I can and then really scrutinise my feedback to improve it. We also need to hand in a 500 word self-reflective essay at the end of the module to evaluate how we've progressed throughout the semester.


This module is the bane of my life and I have a true love-hate relationship with it. When I first started, I actually cried because I found it so difficult. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I've always been an overachiever so it was quite a shock to suddenly feel out of my depth with learning. The problem was that we started with philosophy and they were really complex concepts with a huge amount of very difficult, very long, texts. Spending six hours reading 200 pages on existentialism was not how I planned to spend my year! On top of that, our seminars are only once every four weeks so we have a huge amount of information to retain between sessions and there are only three of us in the module so I can't just sit all quiet and go "yeah, I agree with Daniel'. Instead I have to actually form some real opinions and that's pretty overwhelming when you have no bloody idea what you've just read.

The philosophy aspect started with studying death in the classical world, learning what Socrates, Eipcurus and Aurelius believed about life after death (Epicurus is my man since he's like "there's probably no afterlife so don't stress about it and just enjoy your life, yo") Although it was quite dry, it wasn't too difficult. Then we came to the psychoanalytic development of mourning, which is every bit as easy as it sounds! Here we studied Freud's Mourning and Melancholia (depression is caused by a disruption in the mourning process, whether that's due to a bereavement or the loss of something else such as a relationship or freedom) as well as his Ego and the Id. Finally we moved on to existentialism and this is when the tears started. Our lecturer had warned us that the primary text, by a philosopher called Heidegger, was very difficult but I actually found it ok. He'd invented new words for his concepts to avoid preconceptions (so, for example, a being with awareness of their own existence is a dasein rather than a human because a baby wouldn't be included) and this made it quite tricky but I really enjoyed the challenge. This links nicely to my Contemporary Approaches to Death and Dying module since it was concerned with our ability to understand our own mortality. Unfortunately, the other texts were much more complicated and had the effect of undoing everything I thought I'd understood, hence the tears. 

When we moved onto theology, I thought I'd be happier. It was based around Christianity and I have some understanding of the Christian religion so naively thought I'd be just fine. Yeah, no. The readings assumed quite a sophisticated prior knowledge so suddenly jumping into arguments about the location of the soul and the literal vs theoretical understandings of Christ's resurrection was more difficult than I thought. Thankfully we only spent two weeks on this before we got into the final aspect, and the one I was really looking forward to- ethics.

Our first ethics week was spent looking at Catholic views on capital punishment and I was glad to finally understand everything I was reading. In fact, these texts put into context some of the concepts I'd struggled with in previous weeks so it felt like somebody had shone a light on everything. It was really interesting to learn about the different theoretical arguments for and against capital punishment, and to what extent the Bible allows it. A really interesting point that came out of our seminar was that, generally speaking, those who argue in favour of capital punishment also happen to be pro-life and those who argue against the death penalty are pro-choice. It doesn't seem logical that these two positions should be held simultaneously but that's exactly what happens in the majority of cases. We then moved on to the ethics of suicide which I thought was going to be of great interest to me as I had many a philosophical discussion on the Christian theology of suicide as a teen (I was a very 'interesting' teenager!) and expected to finally get answers to the questions I'd posed. Unfortunately, it was much more dry than I expected and heavily based on fairly old texts such as Hume's eighteenth-century essay On Suicide which, funnily enough, I'd read last December. (While looking for that link I've just discovered Durkheim has also written an essay of the same name so brb off to buy that). Next we're looking at animal ethics and abortion before our assignments are due.

Our assignments work differently in this module so there's no draft but I'm hoping the feedback I get in the other two will help improve my writing in this one too. The positive is that there are only two essays and one of them is really easy:

1. A 1500 word dossier on any theological, philosophical or ethical issue of our choice. I'm sure it will come as a surprise to nobody that I immediately nope-d the theology and philosophy options. Instead, I'm writing my dossier on arguments for and against capital punishment in Catholicism. Don't know what a dossier is? Get this- I choose five texts and write approximately 300 words on each one, summarising the argument and linking it to other texts in the field. Is it just me or does that sound like the easiest assessment in the world ever? If I don't get a distinction, I'll be fuming!

2. A 2000 word essay on one of a series of essay questions. I'm probably going to be writing about the circumstances in which Christians are permitted to kill since I can then use all the reading I did for my dossier. Two birds with one stone and all that.


Apart from the total of 13,000 words I need to write in the next six weeks, I'm also looking forward to my semester two studies. Again, I have three modules- Death and the Christian Tradition (which I'm not really looking forward to considering my success in the theology module!) and Death and Visual Culture which I'm so excited about, I'll probably cry when I finally start. It's all about representations of death in art, and cemeteries, and post-mortem photography and all those morbid things I love. I also start my Gateway to Independent Study module, preparing me for the dissertation that I'll be writing over the summer. I feel like I've only just started and I'm already thinking of my dissertation!

Once I get all the feedback from my various assignments, I'll write another update (and you can all laugh at me if I fail my dossier) before starting my new modules. Wish me luck!

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  1. This was so interesting Becky - it sounds like a great course and you do seem to be really enjoying it. I get the tears though. I've always been a mathys person but very much a stats/finance fan, my pure maths modules at university caused tears more than once!

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  2. So funny, I rarely hear anyone who calls it the Shoah who isn't Jewish. Didn't know they'd started it teaching it like that. My area of interest would definitely lie with world religions and cultures around the world on funeral rites and beliefs

  3. This sounds so interesting, I find the rituals surrounding death so interesting and we covered it briefly in high school (in Ancient History). Hope the assignments go well, I understand how stressful it can be even if you enjoy the subjects.

  4. Oh I loved reading this update. Your course really sounds so interesting, and whilst it isn't something I'd study (and do well in!) myself, this makes me want to learn more about the topics aha. Also making me miss studying!


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