‘Why is death valuable to think about for education?’: reintegrating death within life for navigating vulnerable times

Juliette Clara Bertoldo, Maynooth University.

Introduction. Spring 2020. The doctoral studies in education I was about to undertake began at a time when death became more visible than ever. From George Floyd’s murder, a singular story but socially connected to the disproportionate deaths of racial minorities, to the ongoing violent and lethal environmental disturbances, the spread of coronavirus joined the grim list of deadly events. The very first words tipped on my computer were painfully resonating with worldwide upheavals of uncertainty, turmoil, and rupture. In the chaotic landscape of my mind freshly committed to writing a Ph.D., my heart was screaming with anger: ‘isn’t our awareness of death a shared responsibility of utmost importance that we continue to betray repeatedly?’ As environmental educators Affifi & Christie (2019) claim: ‘Death is all around us and the future is precarious. And yet, at least for those not suffering its effects, ‘life goes on.’’(p.1143). My emotional reaction, other than debilitating, revealed deep care for all possibly being hurt and about to be hurt. I saw this thesis as an opportunity for exploring the lessons death has to offer, not to dwell in morbidity nor to glamourize it, but to appreciate its teachings as a compass for navigating the current context of planetary trouble.

Considered the taboo of the 20th century (Gorer 1955), western society has been critiqued to be in death denial; a psychological response to the all-consuming terror it provokes (Becker 1973). Today, the analysis of human relationship with death has been nuanced and complexified; its felt presence varying greatly according to contexts. On the one hand, death colours not only research interests across a variety of interdisciplinary fields (e.g. Death Studies, and Queer Death Studies, to cite the obvious), but is also widely reclaimed by the public and civil society (e.g. death café; the death-positive movement), but on the other hand, it is still resisted in areas characteristic of modern ways of living (e.g. war on aging). Moreover, death is omnipresent in communities where precarity and violence are daily afflictions, while its ubiquitous and distorted representations pervade mass culture and the media. Amidst this burst of attention however, the field of education is strangely silent. The paucity of educational literature exploring death as an issue of concern is a telling example (Bengtsson 2019). One possible explanation may be that education, commonly viewed as the quintessential activity of conserving life, is about ensuring ‘the continuance of the world’ and preserving what is ‘new’ in every human being (Arendt 1961, p.185-186). Education is about growth, action, and reflection; in sum, it is about life. Far from dismissing such profound educational investment, in my view, in its desire to ensure the continuity of life, education has a fundamental duty to reflect on the question of death, otherwise the idea of transmission (at the heart of its history since Emile Durkheim) would only serve to perpetuate a system pretending to ignore the finitude of living beings and ecosystems sustaining life on earth.

Why is death valuable to think about for education? This blog entry distills two potential answers in a deceptively simplistic manner, conscious of their far broader implications explored in my wider work, that which the Critical Posthumanities (e.g. Braidotti, 2011; 2013; 2019) and Environmental Humanities (e.g. Rose & van Dooren 2011; Rose 2011) frame and inform. Here, I briefly discuss how death exposes us to already existing inequalities, and invites us to reconsider our radical interconnectedness between human and other-than-human. Intersecting both responses highlights the concept of relationality as a necessary means for acknowledging the mortal fragility of all existence and the ethical – and educational – awareness it brings forth.

Death exposes… existing inequalitiesThe globalising and unifying elements of the above-mentioned three man-made pandemics (so to speak) – i.e. racism, climate change, the virus – albeit from a different nature, crudely draws attention to the inequalities webbing and undermining the social and ecological fabric of our lives. In these current examples of disease and political protests, death does not create inequality, it exposes them clearly, while abruptly reminding us – at least ‘us’ living comfortable lifestyles – of ongoing injustices and suffering. However, this is only part of the story: the choice of which deaths are to be exposed publicly and grieved itself results from inequality, and holds important consequences. Indeed, a range of critical theorists (see hereafter) have highlighted the discrepancy between losses worthy of attention, excessively mediatised and judged unacceptable, and those other dead bodies left to die (Mbembé 2003), ungrievable (Butler 2004), ignored or forgotten. As way of example, to the highly visible Covid-19 related-deaths, their statistics meticulously monitored saturating daily news, another long list of victims unfolds and accelerates in the background – the ones due to ecological disruptions affecting both human and non-human populations (Ruitenberg 2021). Here, the concept of ‘slow violence’ coined by Nixon (2011) illustrates the slow-moving and sustained environmental traumas intensifying the vulnerability of certain people, species, and ecosystems, contrasting the sensationalised, and distorted imagery of death at the forefront of collective awareness.

What should trouble us is the public erasure of certain deaths, their acceptance and lack of questioning, accentuating inequalities in the face of death. Within this context, one central and violent question lingers: Who’s life counts and who’s doesn’t? ‘We may all be human, but ‘some humans just happen to be more mortal than others’ stresses Braidotti (2019 p.113). An affirmation sadly well-founded on the grounds of the long-term reign of humanistic and anthropocentric frameworks giving way to dehumanizing practices of colonization and extermination, which now includes species extinction. These mechanisms and structures of annihilation, termed by Mbembé (2003) as necropower, dictate who is worthy to live and who must die, creating thus ‘death-worlds’(p.40 – emphasis in original): those categorized as the sexualized-racialized-, and naturalized-other are generally disqualified from belonging to humanity, stripped away from their freedom and agency, and ultimately from their deaths (Braidotti 2011). In my view, such necrophiliac project calls attention to the ill-famed nature/culture divide, tracing thick dividing lines between humans from non-humans, and all those deemed ‘less than’ or de-humanized others’ (ibid.); which therefore legitimatizes transgressions, excesses, and other injustices, turning bodies – from members of our own species and beyond – into disposable commodities, or reduced to mere skeletons and dust.

This brings me to my next difficulty. Could such an account of death inaugurate a new discourse, an ethics for our living together as a productive act of resistance to the desire of domination and killing? My answer, modestly outlined below, is a hopeful yes as I do firmly believe like Rose (2011) that the ‘thin, scary zone where life and death brush close together is an opening wherein we are vividly called into ethics’ (p.169).

Death exposes… interconnectedness. The above-mentioned matter is a concern of the denial of entanglement and further opens up the question of relational ethics. Indeed, death used a weapon of power to exterminate worlds and lives go hand in hand with the failure to see the empirical interconnectedness of all life (Rose 2011). Interestingly, Marino & Mountain (2015) observe that the claim of superiority and the illusory disconnection it yields, is linked to a fraught relationship with death and disavowal of human frailty, precisely because the animal-other is a reminder of our own creatureliness and mortality. The creation of death-worlds is then a derivative of the ‘outright denial of the living world’, summarized by Todd (2021) as the ‘denial to see ourselves as entangled inextricably and persistently with other life forms, […] founded on a deep cut – or wound – that separates what we call ‘me’ from the necessary multiplicity of ‘others’ with whom life is made possible’ (p.160). This means that behind such refusal lays the idea that in our essential singularity, we are already plural, always constituted by sticky patterns of attachment and entangled webs of relations – human and other-than-human. To put it differently, ‘The self isn’t a unique, isolated thing at all but a product of generations enmeshed in a world, a transmaterialisation of stellar dust, the expression of a vibrant, buzzing universe, a future and a past’ (Scranton 2018, p.334). Humans are bounded with all other beings by the great mystery behind earth’s creation. From such an evolutionary perspective, death far from being a unique human problem is the precondition for life that bounds all species and their infinite assemblages in a much longer time scale; the leavings of innumerable deaths in a greater process of continuous transformation. Hence, the living share at once a common origin and common fate, highlighting the impermanence of all things. This relational concept when translated ontologically, becomes a very powerful one. As Todd (2020) intimates, drawing on Bruno Latour: ‘our inseparability from the world as humans is not only an aspect of experience but is part of an ontological condition of the world itself” (p.7). This deeply challenges the underlying dominant vision of what it means to be human, that is, the belief of a self-sufficient, unitary and untangled subject. It asks then to rethink subjectivity as a mode of relating, reconfiguring a space for all the ‘missing peoples’, generative of new forms of sociality in life and death. In this regard, Shildrick (2020) writes that “If the event of dying were seen as the recompositing of life under new relations of communality, then mortality itself would not be an abject failure – grievable or otherwise – but rather the opening to new and productive interconnections” (p.182).

Reframing subjectivity and the world itself as relational holds potential for an alternative, life-affirming view of death, bringing life and death into dialogue generating thus wider life cycles. Such an approach to death based on relationality is precisely what I wish to offer in my work. Indeed, traditional conceptions of death as an individual and isolated event lingering at the end of one’s horizon (see Heidegger 1962) constitutes a very partial account of mortality that fails to recognise our shared experience of mutual dependency and fragility. Coming back to Arendt, if each life is unique and holds the seed for a new possible beginning for humanity, for Derrida (2005) with each life that terminates an entire world ends; the death of one is in itself the end of a world. On an existential level then, death, as the extreme manifestation of vulnerability, is always shared with others, as ‘every death […] creates a loss in the fabric of life, a loss that reverberates across other living beings, human and others’ (Rose 2011, p.34). We live and die entangled with one another and the precariousness of a life suggests it is always reliant on care and responsibility. In this sense, following Rose (ibid.), death relationally re-imagined, demands us ‘to look into the eyes of the dying, ‘to reach out to hold and to help’, and to re-orient our educational responsibilities and practices towards an acceptance of death, for affirming ‘continuity of life across the generations and to sustain multispecies connections’ (p.30-31). The process of Life is not only fragile and precarious; it is precious and shared. Death inherent to this cycle, reminds us of this acutely.

Closing thoughts. Winter 2021. After a year of research, I realised that death, in indexing massive social inequalities, does not only unearth deep-rooted hierarchies lending to power abuse, it reveals in a more fundamental way our deep connectivity, and our own vulnerability to what happens to others, as only from the others’ existence a world is possible (in the Arendtian sense). To me, this bears a profound educational tone, which is not about seeking individual freedom, rather it is an experience of relationality, not a first-person perspective, but a becoming-with-others situated beyond normative and exclusionary notions of the human subject. To welcome death is to embrace the expression of compassion for the losses we share in common, while unleashing with fuller awareness pain and grief. Learning to reintegrate these aspects in the wider ecologies of our lives may heal the traumatic breaks death engenders precisely because it does not deny them. Thus, attending to death’s teachings may open up possibilities for sharing individual and collective experiences considered unimportant in a defined syllabus but that may be of significant worth to the very way life is lived.

Author biography My background is firmly located in the arts: after obtaining a BA in Dance at the Rotterdam Dance Academy in 2011, I studied documentary filmmaking and worked as a videographer for several art institutions until this day. In parallel to my artistic practices, I graduated with an MSc in Educational Studies at the University of Glasgow (with Distinction), and in 2019, was awarded a Graduate Teaching Studentship at Maynooth University, where I began my doctoral studies. My academic interests are interdisciplinary in nature and currently orbit around Death Studies, Posthuman theory, Philosophy of Education, Environment and Sustainability Education, and Arts-based methodologies.  


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2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you for this, Juliette. A fascinating read. As someone with a professional and personal interest in disability, your point about inequality in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic resonated most clearly with me. I’m reminded of the British Medical Association’s ‘frailty scale’ that was much-discussed at the start of the pandemic when there were fears of a shortage of ventilators. It resulted in a kind of grotesque death-maths in which a person’s access to life-saving treatment was determined by the level of burden they represented.

    In relation to education, I do a lot of work in schools around mental health and wellbeing. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve had many more requests to do work with staff and pupils around bereavement and grief. Do you think the pandemic has opened the door for more discussion about death in schools?

    1. Hi Jo, thank you very much for your great comment – I really appreciate it 🙂

      Thanks for bringing this up. Indeed, with the pandemic, education, and schools have been squarely linked with death, which will certainly lead to greater emphasis – in educational research and practice – on the death topic and its related events such as grief, loss, and the lockdown experience. Actually, educational research around these questions in relation to Covid-19 is already increasing – unsurprisingly (e.g. Testoni & al 2021). One study in the US is also advocating for renewed considerations and directions for implementing death education in the K12 curriculum as a means to offer strategies to deal with loss, anxiety, and bereavement (Smilie 2021). Personally, I still have to meet school staff members that are tackling these challenges on an institutional level. So, if you’re willing to share, I’d really like to hear more about your experience and how you are thinking about these issues in practice.

      Thanks again! And hopefully, see you on Friday.

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