Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures : The Great Courses: Comparative & World Religion

  • by The Great Courses
  • Narrated by Professor Mark Berkson
  • Series: The Great Courses: Comparative & World Religion
  • 12 hrs and 29 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

After thousands of years of pondering it, we still find death one of life's most perplexing mysteries. Many cultures view death as a window into the true meaning of life.
These 24 lectures looking at this often feared subject are an uplifting, meaningful, and multidisciplinary exploration of life's only certainty. Bringing together theology, philosophy, biology, anthropology, literature, psychology, sociology, and other fields, they are a brilliant compendium of how human beings have struggled to come to terms with mortality. You'll encounter everything from ancient burial practices, traditional views of the afterlife, and the five stages of grief to the question of killing during wartime, the phenomenon of near-death experiences, and even 21st-century theories about transcending death itself.
With personal and cultural enlightenment as the overarching goal, Professor Berkson provides you with eye-opening answers to several major questions surrounding death, including: How do we think about death? How do religions approach death? When (if ever) is it justified to take a life? You'll also hear a chorus of voices from multiple disciplines, cultures, and ages as they offer sometimes shocking and sometimes refreshing perspectives on death. These voices include the Buddha, St. Paul, Albert Camus, Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.
"Many religious traditions teach that a form of regular death reflection can deepen one's appreciation for life," Professor Berkson notes. "And in some traditions, it can actually lead to spiritual transformation or awakening. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, 'Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death at the same time magnifies life.'"


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Dispassionate discussion, well researched

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Death is generally not discussed dispassionately when humans interact. These lectures provide one the opportunity to look at death objectively and from almost as many points of view as there are belief systems. I would absolutely recommend it to one of my more open-minded friends.

What about Professor Mark Berkson’s performance did you like?

Professor Mark Berkson speaks clearly. His voice has a good timbre and is pleasant to listen to. He pauses after his sentences so there is time to absorb what he has said without the listener having to backtrack.

What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

Death and how we see it is such an integral part of life. While one knows this, it particularly stands out in the lecture on Tibetan Buddhists who see our lives as a series of "in-betweens", or bardos and say that life, too, is a bardo, existing between birth and death. At the other end of the spectrum is the lecture on suicide (not euthanasia or assisted suicide), a form of death that raises such bewilderment among those left behind. Prof Berkson raises the moral issue: Do we have the right to end our own life? Should we intervene to prevent someone from killing themselves? As with the other lectures, he dips into philosophy, mythology and modern psychology to present a myriad of views.

Any additional comments?

Having listened through to the end, I immediately started the course again. There is so much to absorb because it is packed with interesting information which has been well researched and carefully edited so that there is not one tedious moment.

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- Jacqueline B

Everything about death and dying you want to know

I am surprised at how much there is to say about death and dying. Mark Berkson, Professor and Chair in the Religion Department at Hamline University (USA), brings together a thesaurus of facts from vastly different disciplines addressing the issue of death in 24 half hour lectures.

He begins the course by asking what death is. Quickly the listener becomes aware that death is not such an easy concept to define. Using insights from the medical sciences Prof. Berkson challenges traditional views.

After defining death, the listener is challenged with his/ her own fear of death and how one copes with grief. Hereafter he/ she is introduced to various rituals surrounding the death of a loved one in different cultures, creating a sensitivity and understanding for other peoples' beliefs.

The beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife from the stance of various religions, gets quite a lot of attention. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and Syncretistic beliefs are all discussed.

Issues like dying well and what it means, suicide, euthanasia, killing during war, killing of non-human animals, near death experiences and the pursuit of immortality also comes under the spyglass.

I think that the benefits the listener by making listeners sensitive about death and the various world cultures' beliefs. Though it is presented from a American perspective (the USA's death rituals gets precedence), the vastness of Prof. Berkson's knowledge surrounding the subject is truly astonishing. I was really impressed with the way he approached his subject matter, showing the same respect for the listener as one would expect to be shown to the dead. There is however one thing I think needs to be added when the course is revised - the African funeral. Living in South Africa, as a minister, I have buried people from different cultural backgrounds. I have been amazed at how the beliefs surrounding death and the dying differs within the Christian Faith within this country. One of these beliefs has to do with when to bury a person. In the Northern part of the country, you will bury at 6:00, while a Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal may not be buried before 12:00. Even the content of what should go in the grave differs. Many of these rituals are syncretised with Christian beliefs and practises. For the course to be perfect, I would have liked some of these issues to have been included. That said, I am not sure where one would stop when compiling a course such as this if everyone's whims have to be included.

This course can be followed without the course guide. However, the neat guide not only refreshes the mind. I think it can stimulate further discussion.

I recommend this course to anyone interested in a sincere empathetic in-your-face approach to dealing with one of the most important realities in life, death. While I suspect that Prof. Berkson himself leans to a Buddhist approach to death, he is fair to all religions and does not try to push his own understanding of death on his listeners. He gives you the room to decide how you would like to approach it. It comes highly recommended! The only type of death that you might not encounter in this course, is Terry Pratchett's character, Death...
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- Jacobus

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-05-2016
  • Publisher: The Great Courses