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Formal Proposal for a Death and Dying Division at NCA

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

For accessibility and printing, the full proposal PDF can be found here:

The 5-minute National Communication Association (NCA) presentation is found here:

Formal Proposal for a Death and Dying Division at the National Communication Association

1. Summary

Death, dying, grief, and end of life have long been areas of study for communication scholars across the various sects of our field. Its importance to the field is reflected by the number of communication scholars publishing in journals like OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying, Death Studies, and Mortality, as well as courses being taught in communication programs across the country, not to mention manuscripts encompassing death, dying, end of life, and grief submitted to NCA each year.

Death and Dying research is scattered among various divisions across NCA with scholars struggling to find a consistent research home that allows for networking, collaborations, feedback, and acceptances (which can be the difference between attending NCA and not). Scholars researching this context publish and submit to various NCA divisions with the closest methodological or axiological home for that specific manuscript. However, given the interdisciplinary and diverse nature of Death and Dying research, it is difficult to track research in conference proceedings, for scholars to find where their research logically fits consistently, and for new scholars interested in the context to meet, be supported by, and be mentored by others. This leads to a “silo effect,” preventing optimal networking and collaboration.

Death and Dying scholarship in our discipline often overlaps thematically, but not methodologically. This diversity, as well as the taboo nature of the research, makes it challenging to submit to NCA divisions and feel a connection within any given division, like many other scholars are able to. Moreover, Death and Dying research is often rejected by other divisions, citing “fit,” forcing scholars to either recast their work, or submit outside of the association altogether. Moreover, with so few divisions accepting Death and Dying research consistently, there is higher risk for information overlap and research repetition. That is, with little to no conference proceedings including diverse Death and Dying research, scholars may very well repeat work already completed but not advertised at conferences. This becomes even more prevalent when scholars feel they do not have a research community to share ideas, collaborate, or network. On the whole, communication scholars who study death and dying do not see their work represented in the field, and thus believe they are alone in their scholarly endeavors with limited opportunity for collaboration.

The proposed Death and Dying Division is distinct from NCA’s existing divisions and interest groups. Some divisions have touch points with issues related to death and dying and could be places of co-sponsorship and collaboration (e.g., Health Communication, Communication and Aging, Spiritual Communication, Ethnography, Interpersonal, Family, Critical and Cultural Studies, etc.), but no divisions are exclusively devoted to Death and Dying Communication scholarship. We do not anticipate this division will detract from existing divisions. Rather, the new division would provide the opportunity for current NCA members to explore topical and theoretical questions related to Death and Dying, and would offer a home for would-be NCA members who focus on Death and Dying. That is, current NCA members may add a division to their membership, and a Death and Dying Division may very well bring scholars to NCA conferences, as members, who have not been able to find a research home within the association previously.

NCA’s bylaws indicate that each division will represent a major specialization of communication – Death and Dying certainly qualify. Our mission is to promote research, teaching, and community engagement related to the intersection of communication, death, dying, end of life, grief (associated with death), and the intersection of life and death, inclusive of all methodologies and epistemologies. Our hope is that a Death and Dying Division can be established in time to sponsor and/or panel papers at the 2024 NCA convention.

This proposal seeks support from the members of the National Communication Association for a newly proposed Death and Dying Division.

2. Strategic Priorities Relevant to the Proposal

Goal 1 - Create conditions to support and empower members

NCA, being a national association, is an excellent fit to create the first division for Death and Dying research. Not only is the research interdisciplinary across NCA’s current divisions, but the taboo nature of death and dying is a national, cultural concept. American culture is seen as a “death-denying” culture. Zimmerman and Rodin (2004) posit that the three main defining factors of Western death-denial include: the taboo on conversation about death, the medicalization of death, and the segregation of the dying. In other words, talking about death is stigmatized, death is framed as a medical process rather than a human one, and dying is largely sequestered to private spaces (e.g., hospitals, nursing homes) rather than in the public sphere. We aim to empower our members by destigmatizing death and grief-talk by promoting it in the national conference sphere.

Goal 2 - Promote communication’s value

A large goal of our division is to promote death and dying communication research, which is notoriously under-recognized and under-cited by medical and healthcare communities. We aim to feature our communication community’s research in publications and in the media. To this end, death is also tied to expectations about living—whose lives matter, who deserves to live, and how individuals should be able to live. Avoiding direct talk about death exacerbates its stigma by posturing it as something that should be circumvented or feared. We aim to move the conversation about death into a more open sphere, where we can reduce communicative stigma and share ideas and research to improve our understanding and approaches to death and dying, grief, and end-of-life communication. We also hope to promote the amazing communication research our group members are doing by collaborating with other death-centric organizations, publications, podcasts, and public figures in order to bring greater attention to our discipline’s contributions.


Goal 3 - Embrace and enact inclusion, diversity, equity, and access

Death and Dying is a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue, as well as a social justice one. Communication about who dies, whose deaths matter, whose grief matters, and how death should be experienced sets expectations for how people should feel about dying. Communication research about death and dying seeks to understand, explain, and advocate against death disparity in media, culture, and healthcare.

In practice, our organization has already implemented several initiatives to meet DE&I goals, with plans to continue (and greatly expand) these offerings:

a. Social Justice. We align our scholarship and activities with academic groups outside of the communication studies discipline, specifically the tenants and goals of decolonizing death scholarship, as established by The Collective of Radical Death Studies. This adjacent group asserts and affirms “Death work as synonymous with anti-racism work.” This extends to how we include, prioritize, and highlight the death-centric labor of scholars at-the-margins. This is not only acknowledged in our production of scholarship, but extends to shaping our organizational frameworks. Anti-racist organizing is not merely a goal, but an established and ongoing fundamental of how we proceed together, as a unified organization.

b. Conference Support and Access. Our goal is to include more virtual participation and funding support opportunities for scholars who experience barriers to physical attendance. Our grassroots organization currently utilizes Zoom, Google Meets, and Discord to facilitate inclusion for scholars who would like to be included virtually.

c. Avoid Academic Gatekeeping and Cost-Prohibitive Behaviors. Our current website is free to access and includes paywall-free articles, pages, and support items for all website visitors to access. Resources include a growing body of grant writing and funding opportunities, teaching materials, and general support pages – which are constantly evolving with new community feedback.

d. Pedagogy/Andragogy. We have established an archive of teaching materials for future undergraduate and graduate coursework support, specifically for educators who study and teach end-of-life, death, and grief/bereavement-focused topics. These topics, in dying and death, require specific instructor support, due to the nature of the material being taught and the emotional labor on behalf of educators and students alike. The “Death Education Archive” is an ongoing project that is already populated with helpful materials for free access for all.

e. Support of Graduate Students and Early Career Scholars. We believe, and demonstrate regularly, our commitment to growing and nurturing new generations of end-of-life, death, and grief/bereavement scholars. We have a variety of current collaborators (e.g., advisors and mentors) who regularly offer ideas, resources, and editing services for scholars-in-training.

f. (Dis)Ability-Friendly Infrastructure. Our website, and shareable materials/resources, are optimized to be accessible for digital e-readers. We are committed, as an organization, to providing Universal Design© in our teaching, research, and peer-to-peer resource materials.

g. Mentorship, including peer-to-peer mentorship. Our grassroots efforts have already yielded collaborations across communication-specific subfields, such as health, environmental, organizational, interpersonal, rhetoric, communication & aging, technology, etc. Mentorship is often defined in our grassroots organization as an open sharing of resources and support in utilizing resources.

h. Compassionate Organizing. We define “compassionate organizing” as a facet of radical inclusion. Fundamentally, we believe that compassionate organizing brings people into conversation and mutual learning, rather than siloing people, in order to provide all scholars the opportunity to learn and grow together. We aim to be a compassionate community of organizers that offers the space for scholars to feel safe, heard, and supported in their careers – specifically in the study of death-centered issues. As such, we are united in believing that scholars should be able to talk openly, and compassionately, from multiple subfield perspectives, methodologies, and epistemologies.

Fundamentally, our goals and current grassroots organizing capacities go beyond the basics of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and encourage belongingness, membership, and a meditative approach to how-we-do-communication and build communities through the lens of death-centered scholarship. These goals are not final, but serve to communicate our ongoing commitment to the implementation and pursuit of DE&I in our organizational behaviors.

Goal 4 - Cultivate a thriving and responsive organization

Moreover, being a national association, this division will be able to pull scholars from across the country to fill its membership. Currently, our Facebook group, EOL and Death Scholars has over 200 members from various disciplines, including English, Social Work, Psychology, and Sociology. Thus, the formation of a Death and Dying Division at NCA has the potential to enable interdisciplinary collaboration by inviting non-Communication based scholars into the conference, where their work may also belong. We also have a blog where we share community member works-in-progress, as well as short essays. We hope to connect our members to local and national media to comment on death and dying topics to gain better exposure for our discipline.

3. Financial Implications

Our group requests a modest $500 introductory budget to be able to award Top Papers in our division. Our web presence would move onto the NCA website, while our current website will remain an affiliated, but separate space for resources and communication with interdisciplinary death scholars. Any remaining budget would be used to host NCA pedagogy workshops or Community Time events open to any interested NCA members.


Top Student Paper - $100

Top Paper - $100

Pedagogy Workshop - $100 (paid to presenters)

Community Time Event - $50 (for materials)

Website URL and Hosting - $150 (this will keep access to our materials free for all)

4. Recommendation

There are no scholarship outlets for Death and Dying scholars at Communication conferences of any level (e.g., regional and international), and often within communication journals, making it imperative to have a place for Death and Dying Communication research to be represented, seen, and thrive. Seeing a gap in our discipline and a need for connection, there is a need for a new division to unite inter- and intra-disciplinary work.

For the reasons cited in this proposal, we ask the Executive Committee and Legislative Assembly to support the creation of a Death and Dying Division.

5. Motion

To establish the Death and Dying Division as a new interest group at NCA.

6. Background/History

Despite positive comments from reviewers and even high scores, many proposed panels and papers surrounding death and dying from the last several years have been rejected from various divisions across the National Communication Association. More often than not, rejections come with the idea that end of life, death, dying, and grief research is inappropriate, underwhelming, unfocused, or even at times, unclear for any specific division. For end-of-life and death-centered scholars who have never quite ‘fit’ in time-honored, established conference divisions, this dualistic feedback (ranging from excited/intrigued to utterly befuddled) is a common experience.

In general, death and dying scholars frequently face this kind of excitement about their research coupled with disdain for the interdisciplinarity of their research methods. Centering death subjects, rather than framing death as a consequence (rhetorically speaking), is often met with pushback. Scholars examining death and dying do not quite fit as health, gerontology, organizational, or interpersonal communication, yet we utilize all these approaches, theories, and methodologies in our research.

Death is messy. Researching death is messy; it is interdisciplinary, methodologically diverse, and notoriously difficult to categorize in human-centered academic scholarship. However, researching death is valid, valuable, and an essential part of communication and communication-adjacent research and imperative not only to advance theory, but also for its practical implications.

Although several death and dying scholars felt alone in their rejections, it became abundantly clear they were not alone in this experience. There were journals aimed at grief, death, and dying – thus there must be other researchers, but it was often difficult to find one another, to network, and to learn about each other's work at NCA. In 2021, a group of death and dying scholars found one another, and were able to create a space to feel supported, validated, recognized, and collaborate on their research within the communication discipline. By September 2021, the EOL and Death Scholars Facebook group was created and garnered immediate popularity and growth, gaining over 85 members in a 2-month time span. Outreach for the EOL and Death Scholars group quickly established a community of almost 200 academics and scholars who came together to share resources and ideas about death and dying-related research.

By November 2021, members of this group held a business meeting, developed a leadership team, as well as a web development team that actively archives death and dying research, established several working groups to organize research projects and conference panels, and organized a professional network that puts death and dying scholars in conversation with others who share their ideals and interests so as to stimulate collaboration. This group of scholars meets quarterly to continue conversations about how to best network among interested and invested Communication scholars. Smaller working groups also meet to collaborate on record keeping, outreach, website and material design, and other endeavors to ensure the long-term sustainability of the potential division and community. Many scholars, including graduate students, have expressed enthusiastic support and desire for an academic “home” for our work at the national conference level. These organizational efforts are now focused on creating this space at NCA.

NCA is already host to Death and Dying scholarship. A search of just the word “death” in previous NCA conference listings found:

● 43 papers or panels in 2022 (see Exhibits section below for the full NCA listing) ● 11 papers or panels in 2021

● 18 papers or panels in 2020

● 22 papers or panels in 2019

● 27 papers or panels in 2018

These papers and panels were found in a variety of divisions such as:

● Spiritual Communication Division

● Activism and Social Justice Division

● African American Communication and Culture Division

● Critical and Cultural Studies Division

● Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division

● Communication and Aging Division

● Instructional Development Division

● Mass Communication Division

● Performance Studies Division

● Family Communication Division

● Health Communication Division

● Interpersonal Communication Division

● Communication as Social Construction Division

● La Raza Caucus

● Association for the Rhetoric of Science, Technology, and Medicine

● Ethnography Division

It is clear that Death and Dying topics intersect many, if not all, divisions within NCA. While it may appear that the declining numbers in 2020 and 2021 are due to waning interest in the topic, we argue that this decline in number is due to the diversity of death-related topics and terminologies that have evolved over the last five years and the previously discussed difficulty with material acceptance. In fact, a search for “death” in the 2022 NCA conference program found 88 panels matching that keyword, but only 43 death-dedicated panels or presentations. The difficulty of tracking and networking our research is due to the varied nature of the language of death and dying scholarship, and rejection of manuscripts due to fit.

For example, key words for Death and Dying research could include: death, dying, Medical Aid in Dying (MAiD), bereavement, grief, end-of-life, necropolitics, terminal illness, suicide, murder, euthanasia, after-death, posthumanism, posthumous, obituaries, funeral, burial, Death with Dignity, among a range of other key words and phrases. The establishment of a new Death and Dying division would allow us to centralize research thematically, while also affording the opportunity to collaborate and co-sponsor panels with other divisions.

Our group is currently working to comb the NCA program archives to build a list of death and dying presentations through the years in an attempt to archive topics, researchers, and themes.

A thorough search of the 2022 NCA program revealed hundreds of presentations and panels with the keywords: death, dead, grief, mourning, hospice. See the exhibits section for a link to this listing. This listing was distributed within our network and on our Facebook page to promote relevant presentations and panels.

7. Exhibits/Supporting Materials

See attached PDF for images and additional information

Current Pre-Division Work and Work-in-Progress

● Established an interdisciplinary Facebook group, EOL and Death Scholars, with over 200 members.

● Through our grassroots organizing efforts, we have been able to create a network of Death and Dying scholars who meet quarterly to discuss research and organizational efforts.

● Identified and established our division’s initial leadership.

● Constant compilations of educational Death and Dying resources for our members to access (e.g. sample syllabi, assignments, etc.).

● Established a death and dying communication grants and funding archive to track past, current, and future research.

● Established a web presence to educate future scholars on ways to present at conferences, collaborate, and publish original research.

● Opening opportunities for future scholarship by establishing transferable volunteer positions, leadership positions, writing groups, and other professional development and growth opportunities.

● Gathering information and doing outreach to Communication graduate programs in an effort to raise awareness and connect new scholars with established scholars in Death and Dying Communication.

● At the 2021 Conference, we were able to network and identify other Death and Dying scholars at NCA by wearing black badge ribbons with “Let’s Talk About Death” and “Death Scholar” on them. We also hosted an informal “Death Happy Hour” to connect Death and Dying scholars.

● For the 2022 conference, we hosted an optional excursion to a historic cemetery as well as a Community Time event. The Community Time event, a Death Cafe, attracted 30 NCA attendees despite conflicting with NCA school parties that were hosted at the same time. We also distributed badge ribbons to develop death and dying camaraderie and to stimulate conversation about Death and Dying. See Exhibits for photos.

● A 2022 NCA Forum panel featured top Death and Dying scholars discussing and debating the need for this division and the future of Death and Dying research at NCA. The panel was attended by 22 participants.

● We have a repository of pedagogical materials and resources on our website, free for anyone to use and reference.

The website blog is functional and publishes features with regularity.

● A regular newsletter is produced for our current grassroots members.

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