← Back to Center for the Humanities & the Public Sphere

http://ufdc.ufl.edu/design/aggregations/divide/uploads/series%20banner.pngAbout Death: Confronting the Great Divide

Death: Confronting the Great Divide is the theme of an eight-part speaker and film series held at the University of Florida and organized by the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere in 2016 - 2017. It is presented here as part of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere Collection.

The theme of the series "Death: Confronting the Great Divide" is an extended meditation on our shared “final common denominator” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. Drawing upon internationally renowned scholars and filmmakers who explore various facets of cultural and historical responses to human mortality, this series dives into uncomfortable questions too frequently glossed over in the modern society (and especially in the United States). While once considered a central focus of everyday and community life, death today is increasingly seen as something to be expedited (among the infirm), sanitized (through the funeral profession), and, for some, avoided at any cost. 

In light of the enormous but often unconsidered place of death in modern human existence, the series highlights the contributions of the humanities disciplines to creating a space for considering death’s impact on our lives by broadening the discussion beyond the individual and anecdotal. Topics in the series range from contemporary issues such as the implications of political violence on cultural and religious expression in modern society, the environmental repercussions of burying increasingly unnatural human bodies, the role of mobile memorials such as tattoos and car stickers, to the consideration of the deaths of our most intimate non-human companions. In addition, several of the speakers reach to distant historical examples of individual and collective expression of religious faith in the afterlife and its intimate connection to life on earth.

Death: Confronting the Great Divide is sponsored by the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (Rothman Endowment), UF Smathers Libraries, UF Office of Research, School of Art + Art History's Harn Eminent Scholar Lecture Series, UF International Center, UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UF Department of History, UF Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, UF Center for Latin American Studies, UF Department of Religion, Alachua County Library District, UF College of Veterinary Medicine, UF Digital Worlds Institute, and the UF Honors Program. 

Further information follows:

Selected videos of presentations from this series. >

War and the Neoliberal Condition: Death and Vulnerability in Contemporary Mexico
Ignacio Sánchez Prado (Washington University in St. Louis)
Thursday, 15 September, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library 100
(Online Video)

Since former president Felipe Calderón declared a full-in war on drug cartels, Mexico has been the site of an astonishing number of violent deaths: over 125,000 in the most recent counts. While official explanations of this staggering figure generally attribute it to collateral damage in the war, this paper contends that the phenomenon runs deeper. The presentation will focus on the ideas of precariousness, unpredictability, and vulnerability as essential to understanding death in contemporary Mexico, and will attempt to show, through different cultural artifacts (from literature, cinema, journalism and the arts), that death is rather a symptom of two intertwining factors. On the one hand, the “war on drugs” is in reality a set of multiple wars that recently escalated longstanding conflicts between different actors in Mexico, from class antagonisms to political confrontation. On the other, I will contend that these wars are the effect of the economic and political vulnerability of Mexicans in the neoliberal era, a condition known as “precarity”, when the erosion of citizenship, economic enfranchisement, and other social achievements of the twentieth century have rendered people vulnerable and made murder more commonplace. This phenomenon will be explored through three figures: the Central American migrant, the recruits of drug cartels and the bystander.

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, received a Licenciatura (B.A.) in Literature from the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla in Mexico, and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of Pittsburgh. His areas of research include Mexican literary, film and cultural studies; Latin American intellectual history; and comparative literature. He is the author of Naciones intelectuales. Las fundaciones de la modernidad literaria mexicana (1917-1959) (2009), which was winner of the LASA Mexico 2010 Book Award, Intermitencias americanistas. Estudios y ensayos escogidos (2004-2010) (2012), and Screening Neoliberalism. Mexican Cinema 1988-2012 (2014), which will appear in Spanish translation in late 2016. He is currently completing a book entitled Strategic Occidentalism. World Literature and Post-1968 Fiction.


Documentary Film: "Thank You For Playing"
Thursday, 29 September, 5:30 pm, REVE Polymodal Immersive Classroom Theater (Norman Gym)

“Thank You for Playing” is a film that chronicles the day-to-day challenges of Ryan and Amy Green as they grapple with the illness of their son Joel, who has suffered from cancer since the age of one. With the challenge of creating some normalcy for their family of five, they find some solace in creating a tribute to him, a haunting video game “That Dragon, Cancer” that captures both his voice and their experiences, both happy and sad, over the four-year period of his illness. 

A Skype conversation with filmmakers David Osit & Malika Zouhali-Worrall will follow.

David Osit is a documentary film director, editor, and composer. His work has appeared in places such as HBO, NBC, PBS, TLC, Al-Jazeera America, Channel4, Arte, VICE, and Wired. David’s first feature documentary film Building Babel, which he produced, directed, shot, edited and composed, was a recipient of ITVS Open Call funding, broadcast as the series premiere of PBS America Reframed in 2013, and played at film festivals worldwide. David was co-producer and composer for Where Heaven Meets Hell (IDFA, Hot Docs), which broadcast on PBS Global Voices in 2013. David is a recipient of the Anthony Rhodes Vice Presidential Scholarship and received his MFA in Social Documentary Film from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Malika Zouhali-Worrall is an award-winning director, producer and editor of British/Moroccan origin. She is one of the directors and the producer of Call Me Kuchu (2012), a documentary that depicts the last year in the life of the first openly gay man in Uganda, David Kato. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary and the Cinema Fairbindet Prize. Malika is a Chaz & Roger Ebert Directing Fellow and an alumnus of the Film Independent Documentary Lab, the Tribeca All Access program, the Firelight Producers Lab, and the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant. Malika is a graduate of Cambridge University, and holds an M.A. in International Affairs from the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

Mobile Memorials: Carrying the Dead in the Twenty-First Century
Candi Cann (Baylor University)
Thursday, 20 October, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library 100
(Online Video) 

In a period when American cemeteries get ever fewer visitors, it is clear that in many communities, grave stones and mausolea are no longer effective ways to commemorate the dead. This talk traces the development of mobile memorials, from tattoos to car decal memorials, as contemporary ways of (literally) carrying the dead around with us, and making the status of the bereaved clearly evident to those around them through a visual marker. In the contemporary world, where one is not given much time off to actually mourn and process a death, or to withdraw from the world to grieve, the practice of displaying one’s status as mourner becomes even more valuable.  Mobile memorials operate as one way of both affirming one’s status as one in mourning and reconnecting the dead with the living.

Candi Cann is an Assistant Professor at Baylor University and teaches world cultures, world religions, and Buddhism in both the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and the Religion Department. She received both her A.M. and Ph.D. in Comparative Religion from Harvard University, an M.A. in Asian Religions from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a B.A. in Asian Studies and English from St. Andrews in North Carolina. Her research focuses on death and dying, and the impact of remembering (and forgetting) in shaping how lives are recalled, remembered and celebrated. Dr. Cann's most recent book is Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century with the University Press of Kentucky, and she has also written various chapters and articles on virtual/Internet memorialization. Her forthcoming book Dying to Eat examines the intersection of death and food and the ways in which food serves to connect both the dying and the dead with the realm of the living.


The Ecology of a Corpse: Dead Bodies in American Environmental History
Ellen Stroud (Pennsylvania State University)

Thursday, 3 November, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library 100

Dead bodies have been health hazards, toxic waste, and compost for the garden, sometimes all at the same time. They have been obstacles to development, and major tourist draws; they have been both an integral part of nature and also entirely apart from it. Twentieth-century bodies and their accumulations of mercury, titanium, silicon, and plutonium, can be quite toxic, but even the early American dead had complicated relationships with their environments. In this talk, Ellen Stroud argues that understanding the history of American landscapes, environments, and ideas about nature requires spending time with bodies of the American dead.

Ellen Stroud is an Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and specializes in U.S. Urban and Environmental history. Her first book, Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast looks at the ways in which the twentieth-century growth of cities in the northeastern U.S. fostered the return of forests to the region. Her current project, Dead as Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body looks at the ways in which corpses and corpse disposal practices have shaped American landscapes and ideas about nature. Her research on this project was supported by a membership in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her other publications include articles in Environmental History, History and Theory, and the Radical History Review.


Into the Open: What Animals Can Teach Us about Death
Jessica Pierce (Bio-ethicist, Writer, Religious Studies Scholar)

Wednesday, 1 February, 7:00 pm, Millhopper Branch Library
(Online Video) 

What we can learn about death, and about caring for those who are nearing the end of life, from our experiences with animals? The simple answer: A lot! This talk will explore what kinds of “death awareness” animals might possess, and will look at some fascinating reports of death-related behavior, including grieving, in both wild and domesticated animals. We’ll also examine human cultural, psychological and moral attitudes toward and practices related to animal death, focusing particularly on the death of companion species such as dogs and cats, and on the growing field of veterinary hospice and palliative care. Here we find a rich source of insight on caring for dying animals, and also a useful comparative ground thinking about our own death and the death of our human loved ones. 

Jessica Pierce is a bio-ethicist and non-fiction writer who earned a M.Div. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Virginia. She is an affiliate faculty member at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Denver. Her publications include Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, written in collaboration with cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff; The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives; and most recently, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Her other publications have appeared in the Journal of Bio-Ethical Inquiry, the Journal of Environmental Philosophy, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as popular articles for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Preparing for Death: Reflections on Possession and Loss in Late Antiquity
Isabel Moreira (University of Utah)

Thursday, 16 February, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library 100
(Online Video)

As the biblical phrase has it, death (‘the day of the Lord’) will come like a thief in the night. But for those who had the privilege of waiting for death, a constellation of thoughts, attitudes, and practical choices presented themselves which, when acted upon or recorded in some way, provides us with a view into the past: how people thought about death, and how they envisaged what lay beyond. Focusing on the fifth through eighth centuries, this talk explores how individuals in the past made personal decisions about the meaning of their lives whilst engaged in the process of making preparations for death. In an era of western Christian culture that was particularly challenged by shifts in attitudes to wealth, and thus by extension to the thorny interconnection of personal possessions and hopes of salvation, these individuals faced entirely relatable concerns about how to understand what they owned and, in some cases, what they had lost. In some cases, new approaches had to be learned in the context of religious ideas that were not necessarily intuitive. From the anxieties of an impoverished aristocrat in the fifth-century, to disturbing personal visions of the otherworld in the seventh and eighth centuries, possessions (and their loss) came to represent both baggage and opportunity in the quest to face death with a modicum of hope.

Isabel Moreira is Professor of History at the University of Utah, where she served as chair from 2011 to 2016. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Saint Andrews. Her scholarship focuses on the social, cultural, religious and intellectual history of Late Antiquity (roughly 300-800) with an emphasis on cultural expressions of religious ideas. Her most recent publications include Heaven's Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity with Oxford University Press and Hell and Its Afterlife: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, a co-edited volume with Margaret Toscano examining Hell's classical roots to the modern era of graphic novels and journalism in an era of terrorism.

Relics and Reliquaries: A Matter of Life and Death
Cynthia Hahn (CUNY, Hunter College)
Thursday, 16 March, 6:00 pm, Chandler Auditorium (Harn Museum)
(Online Video)

A not unusual modern response to reliquaries is disgust – after all they often contain bones. To understand their presence, even their glorification, it must be admitted that the bones are not the ordinary subject of horror, rather as the bones of the blessed, “dem bones gonna rise again”!  In a Christian understanding they will be instrumental in linking heaven and earth.  Relics (with the help of their reliquaries) lead away from death and horror through intercession and access to salvation.  Indeed, only in a later, almost modern development did the bones – and the “economy” of death – become a subject of fascination in themselves.

Cynthia Hahn is a Professor of Art History and the Director of Graduate Studies in Art History at Hunter College (City University of New York). She earned her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University and her MA from the University of Chicago. A specialist in early and late medieval art history, she has previously held teaching positions at Florida State University where she was Gulnar K. Bosch professor of Art History, the University of Chicago, the University of Delaware, and the University of Michigan. She participated in the planning of the major exhibition “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in the Middle Ages”. Her recent publications include Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of the Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century (2001) and Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 (2012), as well as numerous journal articles and contributions to edited collections.

A Doorway to the Divine: Islamic Bodies and the Sufi Saints as Connecting the Living to the Dead
Ellen Amster (McMaster University)
Thursday, 6 April, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library 100

(Online Video)

Nineteenth-century French visitors to Morocco remarked that pilgrims in North Africa visited the tombs of Islamic “saints” (awliya’) searching for healing from a variety of mental, physical, and moral afflictions.  These were dead who brought healing to the living—through touch, prayer, or cures performed at the shrine. The Moroccan jurist Hasan al-Yusi (d. 1691) called these saints “a medicine and a cure,” for the saint “connects the various layers of reality to one another;” he is an axis around whom reality revolves (qutb) and a murabit (marabout, one who binds men to God). Saint tombs also have political significance. In visiting graves, Moroccans constructed a topographical map of the collective past, a geographical representation of the Islamic political community (umma) and God’s presence in the world, a political imaginary yet contested in the contemporary world. The key connecting the living to the dead is knowledge, a knowing that realizes the potentiality of the human body as an isthmus between the “oceans of God and the Cosmos,” as the Qur’an describes, and a station for the Lord of the Two Worlds to reside. In this talk, we consider the hagiographical compendium of Muhammad ibn Ja’far al-Kattani, Salwat al-Anfas wa Muhadathat al-Akyas bi man Uqbira min al-Ulama’ wa al-Sulaha bi Fas, and the city of Fez. In Morocco, we see how this knowing operated in physical space and time, and how French colonial interventions and science impacted Moroccan understandings of death and life. 

Ellen Amster is the Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine and is jointly appointed in History and the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Faculty of Health Sciences. She has been a Fulbright scholar, a Chateaubriand scholar of the French government, and received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a historian of the Islamic world, France, and medicine. Her research addresses the relationship of citizen bodies to the body politic, the history of biomedicine in global context, religion and science, birth and maternal health, the body as the center of political sovereignty, and the encounter of French and Islamic scientific epistemologies. Her 2013 book, Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956, is an interdisciplinary study of health, healing, and the body in Morocco.