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Smiling in the Face of Mortality: Centering Support as Death Scholars

When I was just a budding death scholar at my undergrad institution, I remember going to a meeting with my academic advisor to discuss how I should frame my research agenda for graduate school applications. While sitting in his office, blowing on a cup of hot green tea in an antique cup, he reclined lazily in his office chair and told me, “You’re not really interested in death. What you’re really interested in is rhetoric, and you’re using death to talk about rhetoric. Someday, I’ll read your dissertation and it probably won’t be about death, you’ll probably have moved on to something else.” I was content to brush off his response, since I wasn’t going to be his advisee much longer, but that was not the first of last time I encountered an attitude of dismissal toward my research agenda as a scholar of death and dying.

At the launch of this grand endeavor—the Death and Dying Division—I want to implore my colleagues to retain what I refer to as the four C’s: courage, confidence, character, and curiosity.

In my experience, scholars of death, dying, and end-of-life (EOL) generally encounter one of two responses to their work when their share their research foci with fellow scholars and intellectuals: admiration or dismissal.

Admiration is, of course, the preferred response. These responses usually come with an indication of fascination. “Oh, that’s such a fascinating research topic...and so relevant!” one conference attendee once said to me in an elevator as we were making small talk on the way to a panel session. Sometimes people have questions. “What does that mean?” “So what do you actually study?” “How did you get into that?” Often, the novelty of focusing on death and dying prompts engaging conversations about mortality and the state of death culture. As it happens, most people want to talk about death, they just don’t know where to start. Most people have questions about death, they just don’t know if it’s okay to ask them.

However, dismissal is also a frequently encountered response. “Don’t you want to study something that isn’t so...depressing?” my advisor once asked me. I’ve been told that I’m awfully young to be studying death and dying, or that because I don’t approach my research from a public health perspective my research is less valid. There are a variety of interdisciplinary divides in my field, the field of communication, that prescribe that death and dying should be studied using certain methodologies for legitimacy. There’s also an increasing attitude of technological immortality, the belief that advancing technologies will allow us to live better, for longer, and then be immortalized digitally through social media and other digital profiles. This attitude furthers death denial and fosters a dismissive attitude toward death and dying scholarship. If death will become “easier” and memorialization more ubiquitous, what’s the point of studying how people make meaning of death, dying, and EOL? As a death and dying scholar, I struggle to even understand such an attitude, but it is nonetheless a mindset that many hold.

Facing such dismissal of the legitimacy and necessity even of our work as scholars of death and dying is difficult at best, and soul crushing at worst. Academics, scholars, and intellectuals already face the difficulty of burnout due to the fluid and at times undefined nature of that work. Coupled with the effort required to do life-honoring death work, dismissal by other intellectuals is especially disheartening.

Several towering gravestones along a roadway in The Woodlands Cemetery
The Woodlands Cemetery | Photo Credit - Cheyenne Zaremba

A dismissive attitude toward death, dying, and EOL work is strongly influenced by the dominant perspective of death denial and ignorance present in North-Atlantic Western death culture. This makes it difficult to expect everyone to be ready to approach death and dying work with an attitude of awareness and appreciation. However, as scholars of death and dying, we can work to ensure that we are supporting each other, especially our younger colleagues who are newly entering the research area and discovering their niche.

Six years ago, at the start of my undergraduate career, I would have never thought that conferences and divisions existed that addressed my research niche and understood and supported the work that I was doing. At the launch of this grand endeavor—the Death and Dying Division—I want to implore my colleagues to retain what I refer to as the four C’s: courage, confidence, character, and curiosity. Courageously advocate for your work and the work of your colleagues. Confidently pursue your research agenda and practical application surrounding death and dying issues. Maintain a character of humility and compassion regarding any of the communities you study and share conversations with. And don’t stop asking questions. As the full quote of a favorite quip goes, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”

I find myself constantly renewed by the passion and kindness of my fellow death scholars. Your work inspires me to continue asking questions and doing better!

Gravestones along a tree-lined green that is covered with golden fall leaves
Mount Albion Cemetery | Photo Credit - Cheyenne Zaremba
Cheyenne Zaremba is a PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. When not studying the rhetoric of death and dying, Cheyenne enjoys visiting cemeteries, doing tactile crafts, playing video games, and baking gluten-free vegan treats.

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