Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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My experience at Birkbeck as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor and its impact on my research

This post was contributed by Professor Michel Rosenfeld, a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Birkbeck’s School of Law

As my semester at Birkbeck is all too soon about to come to a close, I briefly pause to take stock on how my experience has added up to a rich, rewarding and unique contribution in furtherance of my research. I have greatly benefited from exchanges with faculty and students at Birkbeck as well as at other UK universities where I made various presentations as part of my Leverhulme obligations.

For many years, my research has focused on how pluralist societies that are divided along religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural lines can live together in an institutional setting and under laws that they could all genuinely accept as legitimate. In the past, I have conducted separate inquiries within my various fields of expertise, namely legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, and American and comparative constitutional law, on the other. My work has always been interdisciplinary and comparative and I have elaborated a normative pluralist perspective that I have named “comprehensive pluralism”. In the past, I have explored the latter’s implications for each  of my separate fields of inquiry, and more recently, in conjunction with my Leverhulme award and my coming to Birkbeck, I have concentrated on integrating and harmonizing the insights and the learning that I had gathered from my separate areas of inquiry.

Three subjects present particularly difficult challenges to any attempt to balance unity and respect for a plurality of viewpoints and basic commitments within a constitutional democracy. The first of these is the handling of crises that threaten the physical or psychological well-being of the citizenry, such as in the case of global or international terrorism. The second subject is religion, particularly in view of its revival, re-politicization, the growth of fundamentalism, and diversification primarily through migration, which have been prevalent in the last few decades.  This has led to various clashes between secularism and religion as well as among diverse religions, and has raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of constitutional secularism which has long been deemed an essential prerequisite to the success of the modern democratic state. Finally, the third subject is the broad question of justice within a pluralist constitutional society in which people disagree over what the good life consists in and over what political society should require from, and provide to, each of its members.

I have had a chance to explore all of these subjects in my various Leverhulme interventions, starting with my Leverhulme lecture I at Birkbeck on October 31, 2014 on “Constitutionalism, Globalisation and Ethno-religious conflict” in which I addressed all three of the above subjects. At a faculty legal philosophy workshop at King’s College I focused on the subject of justice, and presented a paper entitled “Is Justice All-Encompassing or Subject to Moral Override?” in which I explore the role of justice in pluralist societies where there is wide disagreement about moral values and what should count as the good for all. At the University of Glasgow, I co-taught with Professor Adam Tomkins of that university an advanced seminar class that focused on comparing how the UK and the US have handled the international terrorist threat through legislation and judicial intervention. I addressed the constitutional problems posed by the increased politicization of religion at a faculty workshop at Westminster University where I had a political theorist, Professor Chantal Mouffe, as my principal interlocutor. A few days later, I had a further discussion of the new challenges posed by religion in front of a diverse, interdisciplinary audience at a Public Law Discussion Group meeting at the Oxford University Law School. Finally, in what has thus far proven the most enriching and rewarding experience in terms of my current research projects, on December 5, 2014, a full day workshop was held at Birkbeck in which eight scholars, including Professors Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schutz from Birkbeck, and various scholars from other UK universities and from France and Italy, provided invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions on my paper entitled “Constitutional Theology?” in which I provide a very preliminary analysis of a major issue that I intend to make the subject of a book project:  in the context of the daunting new challenges posed by the revival of religion and post-modern critiques, should modern constitutionalism rooted in the Enlightenment be reconceived as elaborating a theology of its own–albeit one that does not appeal to the transcendent or the metaphysical–or as that which remains distinct from all theology and that may be reframed so as to preserve a its capacity to mediate among competing religious and non-religious ideologies?

I look forward to my last official intervention of this extraordinary semester that I have spent at Birkbeck, the Leverhulme II Lecture on “Post-Secular Constitutionalism“, which will take place on Friday 12 December 2014. In that lecture, I will address certain aspects of some of the subjects mentioned above, and in particular how secularism might best fare in view of the various religious and post-modern challenges it has encountered in the past couple decades. Would secularism fare better in the future by remaining firmly anchored in the institutional framework established by the constitution? Or would it be better off by being recast as one ideology among the many that are deserving of constitutional recognition and protection?

[Note: interested parties can still register for this free public lecture 6:00 – 8:30pm 12 December via Eventbrite]

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