The End of Life and What Comes Next



A Conference by the Center for the Study of Religion

March 31 – April 1


**Please Note: If you are registering via Zoom for any of the below events, there is a registration link that covers ALL Thursday events and a second link that covers ALL Friday events. If you plan to attend multiple events via Zoom in one day, you only have to register for the Zoom link for ONE of the sessions.



Session 1: 11:30am-1pm, Thompson Library 165

Jessey Choo, Associate Professor of Chinese History and Religion, Rutgers University

“The Loquacious Dead: Burial and Agency in Late Medieval Chinese Entombed Epitaphs”

Abstract: Late medieval Chinese entombed epitaphs are stone slabs interred with the deceased, inscribed with information about the tomb occupant's genealogy, life and death, burial details, and a eulogistic closing elegy. Thousands have been excavated in recent decades. These inscriptions could be quite lengthy, combining mundane information with sometimes colorful accounts of tomb occupant's exploit and debate over how they ought to be buried and remembered. I will focus on the negotiations within and outside grieving families over the burial arrangement and its signification as portrayed in late medieval entombed epitaphs. This talk is, in some ways, a response to Peter Metcalf's seminal work, Celebrations of Death. I feel that contrasting anthropological and historical methodologies and modern and pre-modern responses to death might generate interesting discussions. 

Peter Metcalf, Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, University of Virginia

“Watching Death: an Ethnographic Encounter”

Abstract: Once while I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Borneo, I spent a Christmas watching an old woman with advanced TB cough herself to death. For my hosts I was only doing the proper thing; no one in the longhouse dies alone. But my motives were not sentimental. I wanted to see first hand the rites that occurred right after death, and they are striking. The corpse is talked to incessantly, carried into the kitchen and force fed—and that is only the beginning. What is inescapable is that those people die a death different to any we know in the west.

Peter Metcalf is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. He has conducted fieldwork in Borneo over many years. He studied first at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and then at Harvard. He has also taught at the Universities of Papua-New Guinea and Singapore. He is author of several books including Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual.

Register for Session 1 IN-PERSON here.

Register for Session 1 VIA ZOOM here.


Session 2: 2-3:30pm, Thompson Library 165

Courtney Campbell, Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture, Oregon State University                                           

“Dying Well and the Ethics of Physician-Assisted Death”

Abstract: Contemporary scholarship on the end-of-life portrays American culture as permeated with a plague of bad dying.  The features of this plague, displayed in sharp relief in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, include the institutionalization, chronicity, professionalization, and medicalization of the dying process.  This presentation highlights four alternative ethical paths that seek to revivify an expectation and experience of dying well at life’s end, including the lifespan ethic, restoring the art of dying, the philosophy of hospice care, and legalization of physician-assisted death. 

Kathleen Garces-Foley, Professor of Religious Studies, Marymount University

“In Search of a Better Death: End-of-Life Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century”

Abstract: Despite the benefits of hospice care, there is a great deal of confusion, fear, loneliness, and exhaustion associated with dying, and caring for the dying, in the United States. A new cadre of entrepreneurial deathworkers offers a better way of dying. They call themselves death doulas, end-of-life midwives, vigilers, and death companions, among other names, and many frame their work as “emotional and spiritual care.” This talk investigates the efforts of death doulas to create a sacred way of dying outside traditional religious boundaries and hospice chaplaincy, while also trying to make a living wage in the gig economy.  

Register for Session 2 IN-PERSON here.

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Keynote Address: 4-5:30pm, Thompson Library 1120

Thomas Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Professor of History Emeritus, University of California Berkeley

“A Magic We Can Believe In:” Belief, Unbelief, and the Sacrality of the Dead

Abstract: The dead have always been enchanted and at the same time unenchanted because they are the detritus of that infinitely enigmatic final act of being human: death. They are gone and not gone, remembered and not remembered, able to do great things and paradigmatically useless. This talk explores the role of dogma, beliefs and unbelief in how we treat mortal remains. It begins with praxis and asks how it comports with its presumed foundation in what we hold to be true about the dead. The talk is about the charisma of bodies and bones and objects that have come in contact with them: material memory. I trace briefly a history of the enchantment and disenchantment of the dead and then explore examples of their sacrality in the face of theological arguments that they are profane—the case of Protestant saints, for example—and of their ability to reconcile the present to the past—the collection of soil from lynching sites for example in the absence of any views about why this practice might work its effects.

Register for the Keynote Address IN-PERSON here.

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Session 3: 12:30-2:30pm, Thompson Library 165

Osman Balkan, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Swarthmore College

“Death out of Place: The Transnational Afterlives of European Muslims”

Abstract: How do European Muslims navigate end-of-life decisions in countries where they face systematic barriers to political inclusion and equal social standing? This talk explores the complex negotiations surrounding the death and burial of Muslim minorities in Germany. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in Berlin and Istanbul, which included immersive participant-observation of the Islamic funeral industry, it demonstrates how burial decisions reflect divergent ideas about citizenship, belonging, and identity. While some Muslims are interred in local cemeteries, many more are repatriated to countries of origin to be laid to rest in ancestral soils. Through interviews with Muslim deathcare workers and community members, it theorizes the significance and symbolic value that such posthumous journeys carry in post-migratory settings, arguing that the Muslim corpse embodies a range of overlapping desires, experiences, and expectations connected to histories of migration and return, as well as attitudes toward death and beliefs about the afterlife. 

Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Assistant Professor Religious Studies, Stanford University

“Conjuring Death: Black Women and Retribution in the Era of Slavery”

Abstract: The use of excessive force, acts of violence, and the threat of death to keep millions of people in bondage was an integral feature of enslavement in the Americas. Consequently, enslaved people grappled with the imminence of death from early ages to the end of their lives. For enslaved women, the threat of death was compounded by their roles as the primary caretakers of enslaved children and the gendered responsibility for the biological and social reproduction of enslaved humanity. This paradox of reproducing new lives while living under the constant specter of death produced orientations and rites that regarded physical demise as an instrument of intimidation and retribution. Thus, acts of retributive justice became a part of bondwomen’s religious repertoires, demonstrating how women used the collection of ritual acts known as “conjure” to gain some degree of control over their bodies, the lives of their children, and rites in their communities. Under what circumstances did bondwomen use conjure to hasten death for others? Moreover, what do conjuring practices that result in or hasten death tell us about enslaved peoples understandings of death generally, and bondwomen’s in particular. 

James Padilioni, Assistant Professor Religion, Swarthmore

’When the Consciousness we Know as Life Ceases’: Zora Neale Hurston’s Hoodoo Multiverse

Abstract: This presentation looks at Zora Neale Hurston's multiversal conception of the afterlife, and relates her cosmogony with her studies of a Hoodoo-Vodou cosmos which features a pantheon of ancestors, spirit guides, saints, angels, and other mysteries / miste as vibrant and vital -- however incorporeal -- members of the Black community. In a Hoodoo cosmos, “dying well” is not a one-time metabolic disruption occurring only upon one’s deathbed, but may involve multiple cycles of interdependent afterlife across an ecology of material forms in which the living members of the community must invoke their ancestral dead, elevate them, and give them light in exchange for guidance, wisdom, and the potential of intergenerational healing. 

Register for Session 3 IN-PERSON here.

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Closing Lecture-Reading: 3:00-4:30pm, Thompson Library 1120

Thomas Lynch, Poet and Author               

“The Done Thing: Getting the Dead Where They Need to Go.” A lecture and poetry reading.

Register for the Closing Lecture-Reading IN-PERSON here.

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Performance - Ohio State Andean Music Ensemble: 5:00-6:00pm, Thompson Library 1120

Michelle Wibbelsman, Director                 

[Program TBA]

Register for the Andean Ensemble Performance IN-PERSON here.