Cool Courses: Day of the Dead and Other Cultural Topics Discussed in Introduction to Philosophy Course 

Posted Nov 01, 2022

The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday during which people remember, honor, and celebrate their loved ones who have passed. In one Introduction to Philosophy course, Professor of Philosophy Andrew Mills takes his students through a journey of life, death, afterlife, immortality — and everything those entail. He brings the traditions and philosophies of various cultures and religions into his classroom to create a space to develop the tools to deal with mortality and grief in their own lives.

Let’s learn more about Professor Mills’ course.

PHIL 1000: Introduction to Philosophy 
This course introduces students to the sorts of questions philosophers ask and the way they go about answering them. Through reading classic and foundational philosophical texts, students will grapple with perennial philosophical questions about morality (“What, if any, are our obligations to other people?”), the nature of knowledge (“What, if anything, can we know, and what are the distinguishing marks of genuine knowledge?”), and the fundamental features of the world we inhabit (“Are things really the way they seem to be or might reality be fundamentally different from how it appears?”). This section of the course will come at many of these themes through a focus on philosophical questions concerning death. Among the questions we will ask are: Is there reason to think we survive our own deaths? Is our own death bad for us? What kind of grief is appropriate to feel for the death of others? How should we live given the fact of our mortality? How should we care for the dead?

What inspired you to develop this course?  
I care very much that philosophy courses relate to students’ lives. Death, grief, and living with our mortality are parts of life that we all will deal with sooner or later. My hope in designing this course was that it would give a much-needed space for students to think about these questions so that they would be better prepared to deal with issues of mortality and grief in their own lives.

Why do you love teaching this course?  
I love opening up a space for students to talk about meaningful parts of their lives, and I find that this course does that. I continue to find topics that connect to the course, and I struggle to find enough days to fit it all in! I love the fact that in this course we get out of the classroom and visit cemeteries, and that we can talk about different cultural and religious practices around funerals.  I’ve been recently fascinated with ethical questions in archaeology about the propriety of digging up buried bodies for research. What makes it legitimate for us to excavate someone’s tomb?  I’d love to take the class on a visit to a morgue, and maybe even to talk to clergy from different religious traditions about how they help their congregants deal with death and grief. I love that as part of this course, students learn not to be so squeamish when talking about death.

What is the most unexpected thing students learn in this course?  
Students learn that on South Sulawesi island in Indonesia, it is common practice for a family to, every few years, visit their dead ancestors and relatives. This visiting means opening up the coffin, taking the bodies out, posing with them for pictures, cleaning them up, and putting them back in the coffin until the next visit. Relatedly, students learn that there are a whole bunch of different ways to do funerals. There are natural burials, bodies can be composted, bodies can be cremated on an open-air pyre, there are home funerals, and so on. There’s a whole world of options beyond the embalmed body in a casket in a funeral home.

They also learn that immortality might be really horrible.

How do the themes in your course prepare students to think critically?  
There are as many different views about the afterlife — the proper way to grieve, the proper way to handle a dead body, and the proper way to live as mortal beings — as there are people. One important aspect of critical thinking is recognizing that there are many different answers to a question and then being prepared to offer reasons in support of your preferred answer. If I think that the only way to do a funeral is to contact a funeral home, have the body embalmed, place it in an expensive casket and then bury it in a concrete vault in a park somewhere, then I don’t have to offer reasons in support of the idea that that’s the way to do it. But once I encounter other options then I have to do some hard, critical, thinking. I now need to think about why my way is better (if it is) and offer reasons in defense of that way. Or maybe I recognize that there are better ways to do funerals. But, however it goes, seeing that there are other points of view is a spur to critical thinking, and that’s what my class does. Not just about funerals, but about grief, immortality, whether death is a bad thing, and so on.

What is some of your favorite student feedback you have received about this course?  
“I feel like this is the college course everyone needs to take to discuss real-world topics. I feel like I can talk about death and the afterlife in a logical and mature way thanks to the knowledge gained from this class. The real-world application for this class was one of its best features.”

“Most prominently, this class taught me quite a lot about myself. I have always been a very opinionated person, but I did not always have sound evidence to back up my opinions on existential things — topics that make up a large bulk of the course material of this class. Through class discussions and homework questions, I was urged to expand my thinking on certain subjects and develop not only an opinion on them but a multitude of reasonings to back up those opinions as well. …something this class taught me is that it is okay to not have all of the answers all of the time, even the greatest philosophers do not have the answers–that’s why they are philosophers. Being inquisitive and making discoveries is what is important in this work and, quite frankly, in any work that you do.”

“I had the privilege of learning so much throughout my time in this course. Prior to this course, I struggled a lot with death. It was hard for me to accept death for myself and others and it was also a really big fear of mine. Having the opportunity to learn various philosophers’ thoughts and feelings about death and grief allowed me to sit down and think about it while being vulnerable and allowing myself to be uncomfortable. I was able to have open and honest conversations with loved ones about death and what should be done when they die and when I die. I no longer have such a big fear of myself or the people around me dying. I still am not sure about what happens when we die, however, I feel a lot better after having conversations about what will happen in the current world when we die.”

“I really believe that this course should be one that every student at Otterbein takes. It is so enlightening to learn about the natural course of death that everyone will encounter at one point or another. Having the tools to learn about what to do when someone dies, how to alleviate the fear of death, and philosophy from various people and cultures about how to handle death and grieving is very important to know and understand. Everyone in the world experiences death and having these tools to help understand it better is a class that all Otterbein students should take during their time.”

What are some interesting projects or activities you do to engage your students in your course?  
My students and I visit cemeteries throughout the course.