Death #2 – A Future Without Me
This lesson plan can be read in conjunction with “Chapter 2. Death” (pp. 29-43) in the freely available teaching resource Coping: A Philosophical Guide (OpenBook Publishers, 2021) with discussion questions (pp. 122-3) and additional teaching materials (p. 119).
1. Wanting to be Missed
Here is a puzzle. People would like to believe that they will be missed after their death, that their loved ones will grieve for them. But they typically also want the best for their loved ones. So why would they wish the pain and suffering that comes with grief for their loved ones?
The discussion can go in many interesting directions. Here are a few positions that students might take:
- Being missed is proof that we were loved, and we want to know that we are loved.
- Being missed is not just proof, but it is part and parcel of being loved. One cannot be loved without being missed in death.
- We may want to be missed, but we should not wish the pain of grief upon others.
- There are healthy variants of grief. Even though grief is painful, there is nothing wrong with a pain that enriches life.
- It is nice to be remembered, but we shouldn’t want to be missed. Being missed just feeds into a perverse sense of self-importance, namely, we like to see things fall apart without us.
2. Being Remembered
Here is a discussion question. Imagine that you are Shakespeare on his death bed, and you could have (i) all your manuscripts preserved anonymously or (ii) half (or ninety percent or ten percent) preserved with your name attached to it. What would you choose?
Students who care more about having impact will choose for (i), while students who care more about being remembered will choose for (ii).
We can think of variations: (iii) half of your manuscripts will be preserved under your name and the other half will be incorrectly preserved under someone else’s name; or (iv), all of it will be preserved but incorrectly attributed to someone else.
The discussion is meant to bring out a tension between the desire to have done something good for the world and the desire for recognition.
3. Being Respected
Alan Kurdi was a Syrian refugee. He tried to reach Greece from the Turkish shores with his family and died when their rubber dinghy sank in September 2015. His lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey.
Here is a discussion topic. Imagine that you are on the editorial team of a newspaper. Two photographs come in along with the story about Alan Kurdi’s tragic story. You can see both photographs in the Guardian article “Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees” (2 Sep 2015). Which photograph would you publish? Suppose that you don’t know whether the child has living relatives, or that you cannot contact them. Or, alternatively, if you can contact them, do you have an obligation to do so? How would you argue your case?
This issue was debated in news circles around the world. The Washington Post (Sep 3, 2015) published the picture in which the boy’s body is being carried away by a rescue worker. The New York Times (Sep 3, 2015) published the more dramatic picture in which the boy’s body is laying on the beach with the boy’s head turned toward the viewer.
This discussion should bring out issues about respect for the corpse, consent, responsibilities of the press, and ethnicity. Here are some guiding questions:
- If you had died like Alan Kurdi, would you want a picture of your corpse with your head facing the camera displayed all over the world press?
- Does the newspaper owe it to the boy’s family to ask for consent?
- Will the more dramatic picture—with the boy’s head turned toward the viewer—do more to sensitize world opinion?
- Does the newspaper have a duty to sensitize world opinion?
- Corpses of Westerners in frontal view are seldom displayed by the Western press, while the norms for corpses of non-Westerners are more permissive. Is there any explanation or justification for this double standard?