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Elegy class explores modern views on death

Many English classes focus on the human experience and what it means to be alive. They focus on the various literary forms such as prose, poetry and essays that discuss the experiences that we all share: love, joy, adventure and much more. Until this semester, there were no classes about the other inevitability of the human experience: death.

Professor David Sherman (ENG) has been working at Brandeis for 10 years. For the first time, he is teaching his new class ENG 148A: Inventing Farewell: A Practicum on Elegy. As written in the course description, “Every modern generation re-invents its relation to the dead. This course explores recent experiments in poetic elegy that construct the presence of the dead and work through loss.”

Sherman has taught classes of a wide range of topics, from 20th century English and U.S. literature, to magical realism and storytelling performance. However, this is his first time teaching a class about elegy.

“Inventing Farewell is a class on contemporary elegy; poetry about death and dead people, but it’s a practicum, so our project is to use elegy to think about practical things we can do in the world,” said Sherman. “It’s really hard to feel like you can do anything in the face of death… as a practicum the course is designed to help us be creative and to have agency [in the face of] this difficult challenge.”

Sherman explained that a problem of the modern world is that we’re removed from the world of death and mortuary practices. “We’re sort of illiterate in death practices and this is just a modern situation because technical specialists and government agencies regulate death and this is just not how it was for most of human history,” said Sherman. He believes that grief is too lonely in the modern world, and hopes that the class can help students think about new practices and art forms that make grief feel less lonely.

Students in the class read a variety of poetry and perspectives, and also various literary forms such as prose and letters. “I’m interested in a wide range of contemporary perspectives… we’re not unified by one religion or one cultural background and so that’s actually a helpful thing to learn [about death] from a wide range of perspectives… like sort of a random assortment of other ways that people try to figure out this puzzle about the modernization of death,” said Sherman.

The writing is analyzed in close conversation with other types of innovation in terms of mourning and memorial work, such as mortuary practices, funerary architecture, historical monuments and cemetery design.

An example of a new practice is that of the Burning Man event in Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. “…There’s always a temple where people go to inscribe the names of people they’ve lost or they want to speak to and there’s little improvised altars… and at the end of five days they burn down the whole thing… for people who participate it’s really moving, therapeutic. That’s the sort of thing that interests me that satisfies a need for a lot of people, we’re looking at the way poetry is in conversation with other material practices,” said Sherman.

As a practicum, students have an experiential component of the course where they will research local memorial acts and commemorative spaces in order to design their own, according to the course description. Sherman said the students have taken trips to cemeteries, such as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. “It’s one of the oldest planned park-like cemeteries in the US. The landscaping is amazing,” explained Sherman of the rolling hills, winding paths, memorials and sculptures. “It’s beautiful but there’s nothing in particular to do, so you just think, kind of unusual thoughts, about what you are doing now in this stage of your life,” said Sherman.

The class will also visit the grave of Abram L. Sachar, the first president of Brandeis University, and his wife, Thelma, which is located near the Sachar International Center (also known as the International Business School). Sherman mentioned it could be a metaphor for the way that the dead are treated today, because not many people know that they are buried on the Brandeis campus. “The modern world pushes the dead aside,” said Sherman.

Another experiential project students will work on at the end of the semester involves interviewing a professional or practitioner in the world of mortuary practices, grief counseling, hospice care or design to learn practical skills and get deeper into the relevant cultural questions.

“Poetry about death, elegies, they’re also poetry about love, and power and hope. Elegies aren’t just about death and that’s one thing we’re realizing, that it’s a class about saying farewell but also about going on to lead a life,” said Sherman.

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