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Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures

Explore how great faiths, philosophies, and cultures all over the world perceive death (and life), guided by a religion scholar and award-winning professor.
Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 67.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Guide to Understanding Death The professor is both an excellent lecturer and very knowledgeable on the subject. He holds your attention and leaves you contemplating what he shares.
Date published: 2023-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent - highly recommend Thoroughly enjoyed this excellent in-depth course. Found it very interesting and especially how well delivered it was to hold my interest. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2022-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Very Balanced Presentation This course covers a lot of different subjects related to death, starting with the biology of death and life and ending with such topics as the near death experience and the killing of animals. In between are laws concerning burial, different religious beliefs on the death experience, capital punishment and many more. Because of that there are many opportunities to slant the course to one side or another on any subject that is hotly debated. Given Professor Mark Berkson's position as a professor of religious studies I was expecting that he might bias the course to a particular religion's point of view. I did not detect that. If the subject was being debated he did an excellent job of presenting both sides. Those times where he did take a stand, he clearly stated that that was his position. I have viewed several hundred courses by the Great Courses and my interests are mainly science, history, law and how various religions came to be, so this course fit my varied interests and offered much I had not heard before anywhere else.
Date published: 2021-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating discussion of Death and the Afterlife This was by far, one of the best courses I have taken in the Great Courses library. It covers the topic of death and afterlife from many perspectives, many religions. The course content far exceeded my expectations and I found the content both informative and enthralling. I would recommend this course to anyone who wants a better perspective on these topics!
Date published: 2021-07-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Condense and informative Mark Berkson manages to explain a difficult topic through a very light-hearted and humane lens. He takes us on a journey that views different cultures, religions and beliefs on what it means to die and how those people cope with loss. I would certainly recommend this.
Date published: 2021-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Liberating As a skeptic I am used to many not in agreement with my thoughts of life, death, religion and responsibility but I have found in this course many concepts and ideas that provide validation. While I'm still young at 88 yo, the subject has imminent meaning as there is yet much of life to live better with these insights. Most unusual I find little bias in the presentation and was comfortable with his thoughtful considerations.
Date published: 2021-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation and value The professor presents information in an enjoyable way, despite the course title. I am teaching a class with students who have "experience" with the subject, and the lectures are well-received.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Much So Well Said in This Course! Professor Berkson said so much so well in this course, I constantly found myself going back to his lectures so I could transcribe his words of wisdom! The biggest challenge to this course is getting over the subject matter: If I'm going for a walk, do I really want to listen to a lecture on dying? That was the hardest part! But once over that hurdle, this course is compelling and engaging. I reserve my sole critique for the animal death lecture, wherein he suggests that for every human instinct or behavior, there's an equivalent one in the animal world. To this, I respond that what ultimately separates man from animal is his conscience and morality. Even if, like Aristotle, one would argue that what separates man from animal is his rationality, I find limited rationality exists among the animals: For example, my pet parrots know how to "deny the lesser to gain the greater" when it comes to awaiting fresh water in the morning: Though they're thirsty, they'll willingly wait until I arrive with fresh water to drink, rather than to drink the old water. This activity refutes Rene Descartes, who claimed that only man can desire against desire. Only man is endowed with a conscience, and only man chooses to behave morally. This, therefore, is what ultimately distinguishes man from animal. In conclusion, an excellent course, well worth the listening to every word. Yes, to quote Franz Kafka, "The meaning of life is that it ends."
Date published: 2020-07-30
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Death is the horizon against which our lives unfold. Knowledge of mortality has inspired much of human activity-religion, philosophy, the arts, and science have all been driven by our understanding of death. Many cultures have learned to see death as a window into the meaning of life. Embark on an uplifting, meaningful, and multidisciplinary exploration of life's only certainty with this modern memento mori.


Mark Berkson

Religious traditions should be approached not merely as objects of analysis, but also as challenges to be experienced subjectively. A deep encounter with another religion engenders intellectual and spiritual exploration and growth.


Hamline University

Dr. Mark Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has twice received Faculty Member of the Year awards and has received multiple fellowships for his work in Asian religions. A world traveler, he has lived in China and visited religious and pilgrimage sites in countries such as India, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and Greece. Professor Berkson has given well over 100 presentations at conferences, universities, community meetings, and churches, and he has also appeared on radio and television news shows in segments dealing with religious issues. His scholarly work has addressed topics such as comparative religious thought, religious ethics, death and dying, and interfaith dialogue and has appeared in books and in such prestigious journals as the Journal of Religious Ethics, Teaching Theology & Religion, and Buddhist-Christian Studies.

By This Professor

Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures
Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know
Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures


Death's Place in Our Lives

01: Death's Place in Our Lives

Start your exploration of this profound topic with a helpful overview of how we, as human beings, think about death. What place does it occupy in our lives? How have our attitudes about it changed over time? What symbols and euphemisms do we use to talk about it?...

32 min
Defining Death

02: Defining Death

To truly understand the subject of death, you have to be able to define it. Here, discover how the definition of death exists on multiple levels and how each of these levels-the religious, biological, philosophical, cultural, legal, and political-determines when a living being becomes a dead one....

29 min
Death, Illusion, and Meaning

03: Death, Illusion, and Meaning

Explore how it's possible for us to find meaning in life-even when confronted with the finality of it. Drawing on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, discover how forms of death denial serve to allay fears about our insignificance, and how we can cultivate meaning in the face of mortality....

30 min
Is It Rational to Fear Death?

04: Is It Rational to Fear Death?

Should death be considered "bad"? Should we even bother fearing it? As you reflect on philosophical arguments by the ancient Epicurus (who thought death wasn't bad for the dead) and the modern Thomas Nagel (who believes we should fear death), you'll consider the possibility that both sides are right....

29 min
Understanding and Coping with Grief

05: Understanding and Coping with Grief

In this lecture on what Professor Berkson calls "an inescapable part of the human condition," unpack the feelings and behaviors of the grieving process. Topics include the evolutionary benefits of grief, the five stages of grief laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and the three categories of grieving identified by psychologist George Bonanno....

30 min
Death Rituals and the Corpse

06: Death Rituals and the Corpse

Since the dawn of humanity, corpses have held lasting significance for us. In this lecture, probe the various ways human civilizations have "disposed" of corpses-from burial (the oldest method for which evidence still exists) and mummification to cremation and natural exposure (known as "excarnation")....

30 min
American Death Rituals

07: American Death Rituals

In America, death rituals display a remarkable diversity and range from the minimalist to the extravagant. Chart the evolution of American funerals by looking at three major periods: the traditional (exemplified by Puritan burial rites), the modern (characterized by professionalization), and the post-modern (where loved ones play a more active role)....

30 min
Approaches to Dying Well

08: Approaches to Dying Well

None of us can avoid dying. But some believe we can learn how to die well. Professor Berkson introduces you to ways that others have faced death (with regret, dignity, even rage) and also considers some of the practical ways we can make the best of our deaths when our time comes....

31 min
Judaism on Death and the Afterlife

09: Judaism on Death and the Afterlife

In the first of several lectures on how major world faiths approach death, the focus is on Judaism. From the importance of mourning and burial rites to the recent resurgence in American Jewish belief in an afterlife, go inside the evolving views on death and the afterlife in Jewish history....

31 min
Death and Hope in Christianity

10: Death and Hope in Christianity

For Christians, death does not have the final say; in fact, the living have the hope of victory over death. Investigate Christian views of death, including the possibility of physical bodies in the afterlife; the concepts of hell, purgatory, and limbo; and the similarities and differences between Catholic and Protestant practices....

32 min
Islam on Returning to God

11: Islam on Returning to God

Many Muslims consider life on earth as a test to determine one's eternal fate, making existence just one part of an infinitely greater story. Consider how the primary forms of Islam-Sunni, Shia, and Sufi-approach the concept of paradise and hell, the four main practices of treating a corpse, and more....

32 min
Death, Rebirth, and Liberation in Hinduism

12: Death, Rebirth, and Liberation in Hinduism

In Hinduism, death is part of a grander cycle of rebirth and suffering-with the ultimate goal of liberation (moksha). Here, ponder the concept of the Atman (one's immutable soul); meet the Hindu gods who personify death and, relatedly, time; and learn what rituals can prevent a spirit from becoming stuck between worlds....

32 min
Buddhism on Impermanence and Mindfulness

13: Buddhism on Impermanence and Mindfulness

Professor Berkson notes that the Buddhist tradition was established, in part, as a response to the realities of sickness and death. The Buddha's response to the experience of dying, as you'll learn, involves seeing past the illusion of self, recognizing the concept of impermanence, and practicing mindfulness....

32 min
The Process of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism

14: The Process of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism

Continue a look a Buddhist approaches to death, this time focusing on Tibetan Buddhism's deep, extensive teachings on the actual process of death and rebirth. Central to this lecture: the fascinating Bardo Thodol (or the Tibetan Book of the Dead), whose lessons are applicable both to Buddhists and non-Buddhists....

32 min
Confucian Remembrance, Daoist Forgetting

15: Confucian Remembrance, Daoist Forgetting

Unlike other faiths, Confucianism and Daoism focus almost entirely on life in this world, not the next. So how do followers find meaning and consolation in the face of their deaths? The answers can be found in the distinct approaches of the great Chinese thinkers Confucius and Zhuangzi....

32 min
Death and Syncretism in China

16: Death and Syncretism in China

First, look at Chinese traditions involving spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings. Then, visit some of the many possibilities for a soul's destination in Chinese traditions (including a Pure Land, an underworld, and rebirth). Finally, discover how conflicting views of the afterlife accurately capture our ambivalent feelings about death....

31 min
Suicide Examined

17: Suicide Examined

In the last half-century, suicide rates have increased nearly 60% worldwide. This is your opportunity to investigate ways to think about this stigmatized subject. You'll examine what great philosophers and holy books say about suicide, and consider the numerous factors that sometimes compel people to take their own lives....

33 min
The Choice of Euthanasia

18: The Choice of Euthanasia

Examine another controversial subject: euthanasia, or the deliberate ending of a life to ease suffering. By exploring the actual experiences of suffering people, the three kinds of euthanasia, and the religious and non-religious policy arguments for and against the practice, you'll be better prepared to join the debate yourself....

31 min
Killing in War and the Pacifist Challenge

19: Killing in War and the Pacifist Challenge

Is deliberate killing justified when it happens during wartime? Consider this powerful question by looking at how depersonalization helps soldiers become more comfortable with killing; how civilizations and religious traditions have morally justified war; and arguments for (and criticism of) a pacifist approach to life....

32 min
Considering Capital Punishment

20: Considering Capital Punishment

In this lecture, Professor Berkson discusses the nature of capital punishment, the moral arguments for and against it, and whether or not the practice accomplishes its intended purposes. Specifically, you'll focus on capital punishment as it's practiced in the United States, where debate has long been intense....

32 min
Killing Non-Human Animals

21: Killing Non-Human Animals

From euthanizing a sick dog to slaughtering cows for food, how do we reconcile our feelings about killing when it comes to the non-human animals around us? Ponder the moral and spiritual dimensions of the death of other animals-and what that might reveal about our views of our own mortality....

32 min
Near-Death Experiences

22: Near-Death Experiences

Explore the mysterious topic of near-death experiences (NDEs). You'll encounter fascinating stories told by survivors themselves; explore the scientific studies behind - and possible explanations for - this increasingly common phenomenon; survey the four major types of NDEs; and join the passionate debate between NDE believers and skeptics....

32 min
The Pursuit of Immortality

23: The Pursuit of Immortality

For as long as we've been aware of death, we've searched for ways to avoid it. Examine a few of the many methods people have used to attempt immortality, including Daoist alchemical methods, empirical approaches by early Muslim scientists, and cutting-edge concepts such as gene manipulation and downloading one's consciousness into a computer....

31 min
The Value of Death

24: The Value of Death

Does death offer us something of value? In this last lecture, continue examining the idea of immortality. You'll cover the negative implications of immortality (like boredom), examine issues that Jorge Luis Borges raises in a tale about immortality, and ponder how death, surprisingly, might make a meaningful life possible....

36 min