Teaching Death to Immortals

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, October 9th, 2009

Writing an obituary was their first assignment and next month Professor Marla Toyne’s students will visit a cemetery.

Professor Marla Toyne’s class about death at the University of Western Ontario is one of a surprisingly few college courses on the topic. “In North America, we have sterilized death,” she says. (Photo by Justin Nobel)

Professor Marla Toyne’s class about death at the University of Western Ontario is one of a surprisingly few college courses on the topic. “In North America, we have had a sterilization of death,” says Toyne. (Photo by Justin Nobel)

You can take a course on virtually anything in college: University of Iowa offers a class entitled, “The American Vacation”, students at Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky, can formally study the “Art of Walking” and at Georgetown, discussions revolve around time travel and the possibility of sentient robots in “Philosophy and Star Trek”. But, despite college student’s notoriously death-defying lifestyles, there are virtually no college courses on death. Toyne, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario who studies human sacrifice in the ancient tribes of Peru, believes that’s a problem, so she started a course on the topic.

Young adults may think they are immortal but they need to know about death, said Toyne. “As an adult you have to think about the future, and one thing that happens in the future is that death will come.”

The different ways it can come is the focus of her research. She studies the Incas, as well as the Chimu and Lambayeque tribes, who inhabited the deserts along the coast of Peru from the 12th to the 15th centuries. By looking at skeletons, Toyne can determine if people died naturally or violently, and amongst the indigenous cultures of Peru, violent deaths were common. “You have children who have frozen to death,” she said. “Some show evidence of vomiting, maybe they were forced an alcohol beverage. Some were buried alive. In other cases, throats were cut and a great deal of blood was spilled.”

Many of the human sacrifices were children. In the highlands of southern Peru, kids were buried on mountain peaks, with their bodies wrapped in textiles. Beside them were placed ceramics and offerings of gold and silver. “It wasn’t just an execution,” said Toyne. “These deaths were related to the ritual goal of communicating with the supernatural.”

Child sacrifice is a far cry from the typical Western death, which is exactly why Toyne wants her students to know about it. “In North America, we have had a sterilization of death,” she said. “Death takes place at a hospital, in a closed coffin. You don’t see that moment of transition, when the person changes from a living vibrant being to a dead corpse.”

One friend who has expressed concern about the course is a firefighter, someone who often sees that moment of transition. “For him, death isn’t fascinating, it’s a grim reality,” Toyne said. “I see cemeteries as beautiful places where we celebrate the dead and he sees them as a reminder of lives he could have saved.”

This is the first semester that Toyne’s course is being offered and it has already proved popular. Four dozen students have enrolled, 41 are female. The gender ratio follows a general trend in anthropology, said Toyne. It also mirrors a trend seen at mortuary schools.

Toyne’s students will watch films about death, such as Weekend at Bernie’s, which features a main character that is dead, and Mister Death, a documentary about a Death Row executioner.

Books will include death classics such as Mary Roach’s “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”, Jessica Mitford’s, “The American Way of Death” and a popular anthropology text titled, “Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in Amazonian Society”.

The course isn’t intended to be a counseling session but Toyne does hope that it will help students to better comprehend their inevitable deaths. “We have distanced ourselves a great deal from death,” said Toyne. “We fight so hard against it and resist so fiercely, that once it comes it shocks our system.”

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