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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.'"

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2016 The Great Courses (P)2016 The Teaching Company, LLC

What listeners say about Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures

Average Customer Ratings
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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...

64 people found this helpful

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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.

44 people found this helpful

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Profound

Few people talk about death even though we all know it's inevitable. This course dives into the void by explaining practices, beliefs and ethics related to death and the afterlife. A necessary read.

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Reviewing this before I'm even finished!

Any additional comments?

This is FANTASTIC in every way! The narrator is like a teacher, and reads the text gently and soothingly. The book itself is packed with thought-provoking ideas and really makes you see death from a neutral perspective as well as from a specific one. I can't say how much I enjoy this. I already know it will be a book I listen to again and again.

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Very good insights despite some biases

This book provides a fairly widespread survey of all the different religious and cultural views on death and dying. However, Berkson's devotes the most time to Eastern views and doesn't devote but one lecture to Jewish, Christian and Islamic perspectives (one lecture each). While I don't how extensive Jewish and Islamic view are, I know that his coverage of Christian views is quite lacking.

Berkson also tries to cover other issues of death and dying (e.g., war, capital punishment, suicide, euthanasia, and even a whole lecture on killing of animals). It is in these lectures that his liberal biases are revealed. Although he tries to provide arguments on both sides, he falls short in most of these except the issue of war which he leaves the door somewhat open). He basically argues that whenever in doubt (or with other options), one should always give greater preference to saving life. Yet, he says nothing about abortion. Great oversight! One wonders if he would prefer life in this case. Would he give preference to animals over unborn babies (and with equal passion)?

So, while I have several things I really didn't like about these lectures, Berkson does make many good insights on this subject and is not nearly as biased as many progressives would be on this subject. At least he does make a good effort to present all views on this subject as unbiased as he can.

6 people found this helpful

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phenomenal class!

I really enjoyed this class. it is comprehensive, not intimidating, and uplifting. I've used it to help prepare myself to earn a certificate in thanatology.

5 people found this helpful

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Starts off strong, ends up weak

The strength of this course is Dr. Berkson talking about how various religions view dying, death, and the afterlife, and in some cases how that's changed over the years. This takes it through lecture 16, which is probably when he should have stopped.

Unfortunately, the course keeps going, and it gets weaker. There's a lecture on suicide, and I was expecting to hear about the history of suicide as part of culture or religion - think seppuku. Instead it boils down to a "choose life" sermon, which may be valuable for someone contemplating suicide, but not very valuable as a course. Similarly the capital punishment lecture starts off as a history but becomes a soapbox for Dr. Berkson's opinions. The next lecture would have been on the killing of animals, and I fear another sermon.

8 people found this helpful

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Thoughtful and thought provoking.

these lectures are well thought out and provide balanced representations of all viewpoints. While the lecturer does offer his own opinion, he does not force it upon you, and leaves much of the material up for interpretation.

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A stellar work

Dr. Berkson has compiled an incredible amount of information and sifted it to retain the most meaningful. If you're struggling with the reality that you or someone you love is eventually going to die, or you have a fascination with the afterlife, or simply a preoccupation with the morbid, this course will allow you to reflect on your questions from every angle. He plays things incredibly even-handedly, discussing every religion and culture with respect. Even tribal cannibals get a fair hearing. But, he is also really good at playing philosophies off of each other to reveal the difficult questions or possible flaws in logic they bring out in one another. This book is full of amazing fables, anecdotes and quotes from literature and history. The questions the course raises may be disturbing or comforting to you, or more likely both by turns, but it's sure to spark emotion in you somewhere. I couldn't recommend it more.

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Best Audible Book Ever!

Great lecture on the concept of death. Really meaningful explanation of different cultural, religious, conceptual thoughts on the matter.

2 people found this helpful

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  • E. Hughes
  • 04-04-17

Lengthy piece of work for not much content

What disappointed you about Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures?

It was interesting in general, some parts more than others but it did go on a bit too much. I have worked in palliative care, (hence my interest) I but did not learn as much as I had hoped. Good facts but the narration dragged. I am not religious myself and found it a bit hard going in places as a result.

Would you recommend Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures to your friends? Why or why not?

Yes those who work in the field of palliative care in particular

Who might you have cast as narrator instead of Professor Mark Berkson?

Narrator was ok byt the subject matter is hard to deliver well I guess

You didn’t love this book--but did it have any redeeming qualities?

Yes I enjoyed some subjects but felt that there was just too much written about religious rights, these parts could have been condensed I think.

7 people found this helpful

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  • Mary Jackson
  • 08-21-16

Very informative lectures on death and dying

I was looking for an audio book on the subject of death and dying to inform my practice as I am training to become a bereavement counsellor and I found this great courses book! It explains death from many cultural traditions and talks of issues around suicide and immortality, all of which I found to be very helpful and informative, I can't recommend this book highly enough :)

5 people found this helpful

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  • Nic
  • 08-18-16

inspiring!

I thought this might be a bit of a morbid read but it's actually truly fascinating and life affirming.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Amanda Horner
  • 10-08-20

amazing

bloody brilliant. a must listen, so good in every possible way really enjoyed all of it

1 person found this helpful

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  • Rhiannon
  • 10-30-19

important topic interestingly discussed

whistle stop tour around the beliefs and understanding of death. very enjoyable and can be useful to many

1 person found this helpful

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  • Natasha Kenney
  • 05-29-20

Brilliant! Highly recommend

As someone who is about to lose a loved one and looking for answers I founds this such compelling listening. It may not have answered all my questions but it did offer some perspective and insights and it was so interesting to learn what different cultures and religions have to say about death, dying and the afterlife as well as poets, researchers and philosophers.
Aside from this, Mark had a very engaging teaching style and I would be intereseted to check out this other courses if he has any. Fantastic series.