Delving Into Death

UCHRI Workshop and Upcoming Fellowship Focus on History of Mortality, Interdisciplinary Study

Irvine, CA, February 06, 2015 --( A group of University of California scholars from myriad disciplines recently discussed the study of mortality and the possibility of an interdisciplinary approach to the topic.

“The fact that we’re all going to die, is not a very upbeat topic,” said Karen Bassi, UC Santa Cruz professor of classic studies, who convened a recent two-day UC Humanities Research Institute workshop, “The History of Mortality: Interdisciplinary Approaches,” at UC Irvine. “The irony is that immortality is contingent upon death, and the theme of our workshop is framed by the Promethean conundrum that humans know that we will die, but must nevertheless go on living.”

Bassi, UCHRI’s Director David Theo Goldberg and 9 other scholars representing disciplines ranging from communications to Chinese and Native American studies to religious studies — Patrick Anderson, of UC San Diego; Juan E. Campo, UC Santa Barbara; Erika Hayasaki, UC Irvine; Ines Hernandez-Avila, UC Davis; Kimberly Lau, Literature, UC Santa Cruz; Deborah Lefkowitz, UCI; and Juliet McMullin, Benjamin Mitchell-Yelin and Lisa Raphals, UC Riverside — took part in the Jan. 23-24 workshop. They explored how mortality has been portrayed historically; how it’s been addressed socially, politically, artistically and environmentally; death’s role in the evolution of various cultural forms including literature, philosophy, history writing, visual practices, material culture, science and technology; the ways in which race, class and gender are defined and differentiated in terms of the risks and consequences of mortality; the rhetorical strategies that sustain various beliefs and practices aimed at accepting, denying, resisting, or deferring death; the built environment (monumental architecture, funerary inscriptions, national memorials to the war dead, etc.) as responses to the fact of mortality; and the effects and consequences of virtual worlds and other cyber-spatial environments in which death is an ever present but temporary state.

“The UCHRI is proud to have hosted the workshop that raised many questions about mortality and how to involve more public engagement around this fascinating and serious topic, one which touches every human being while also constituting ties to all other species of living things,” Goldberg said. “We are looking to the group to think about mortality in a sustained interdisciplinary fashion, to open up insightful ways of thinking about mortality and how it shapes our humanity.”

The workshop was a preview of the upcoming fellowship, “The History of Mortality: Interdisciplinary Approaches,” that will commence in the fall. The deadline to apply for the fellowship is Feb. 11. For more information, visit

Bassi, who will lead the 10-week fellowship, said its aim is “to assess the effects of death in the history of mortality's deferral, its tendency toward euphemism, its susceptibility to quantification, its resistance to interpretation and its relationship to the quest for immortality.”
University of California Huanities Research Institute
Mimi Ko Cruz