Taught by Sheila Bock, a folklorist and assistant professor in UNLV’s interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies department, the Expressive Culture of Death course explores the ways in which death — both currently and historically — has permeated pop culture, the news, politics, and individual beliefs and practices.
Whether it’s regarding dark-humored memes, the rising popularity of the true crime fandom, or how different cultures celebrate or grieve the loss of loved ones, this popular upper-division seminar for undergraduate Honors College students gives a space in which these sometimes “taboo” topics can be discussed freely and openly.
What is it?
This class examines the different ways that death captures the attention of the living and the different forms of expressive culture it inspires, Bock explains. It delves into a range of topics, including (but not limited to) rituals of mourning, commemorative practices, death-inspired humor, true crime fandom, dark tourism, and beliefs and stories about the unrestful dead. Throughout, the students consider how the personal and larger-than-personal converge at these different sites of creative expression, creating opportunities for reflection, critique, community-building, and political action.
Who’s taking it?
This is an upper-division seminar for undergraduate students in the Honors College.
Why is it being taught?
"I decided to put a class together on this topic after attending a virtual Death Café at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in October 2020, where my folklorist colleagues shared their research and personal reflections at the intersections of folklore and death," says Bock. "Listening to the insights of my colleagues helped me find useful frameworks to make sense of my own heightened attention to the topic of death amidst the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and other events happening in the U.S. and world. Immediately after that event, the syllabus for the Expressive Culture of Death class started to take shape in my mind."
Who’s teaching it?
Bock is a folklorist, which means "I study how the verbal, material, and customary forms of expressive culture ordinary people engage in work powerfully both to create meaning in their lives and tocommunicate their beliefs and perspectives to others."
Her early career focused on the social and cultural meanings people construct around health and illness, which in turn led to thinking of the ways people construct meaning around death. Why, for example, are certain deaths more or less “grievable” than others?
"In the class, then, we dedicate a good deal of time to examining how the living respond to the invisibility of deaths deemed less 'grievable,' crafting visibility and remembrance through expressive forms such as street art, informal memorials, and more organized collaborative projects like the AIDS Memorial Quilt," she says.
She brought in Kate Parker Horigan, a folklorist from Western Kentucky University, as a guest speaker to talk about the points of connection she has found in her research between commemorative practices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the aftermath of the war and genocide in Bosnia.
Other guest speakers included Claudia Chiang-Lopez, who talked about her M.A. thesis research on true crime fandom. Popular podcasts like My Favorite Murder have historical precedents in traditional genres of folk expression, such as murder ballads. She also led a lively discussion on why true crime media is so popular among women in particular. Another folklorist colleague, Rachel González-Martin from University of Texas, Austin, talked about how the ghostly figure of La Llorona is adapted and takes on new meanings within contexts of Chicana/Latina feminisms.
What students might be surprised to learn
"A foundational premise of my work as a folklorist," Bock continues, "is that we have much to learn from forms of cultural expression that others might dismiss as 'trivial.'" She points to such examples as the different representations of zombies across space and time, dead baby jokes shared among students in a middle school cafeteria during lunchtime, playful memes circulating after the death of a notable figure, a parody of a grassroots memorial that grew around a dead roach in a stairwell on a college campus, Halloween yard decorations, a group of adolescents chanting 'Bloody Mary' in front of a mirror in a darkened room).
What excites instructors the most
Death is a topic that is both hypervisible and invisible. Through both mass media and social media, we are constantly consuming stories featuring death on an unfathomable scale. Ironically, in the United States, death is also a topic that is often hidden from view, says Bock. Through historical processes such as medicalization and professionalization, death has been separated from daily life. Within this context, giving explicit attention to death in everyday life is often pathologized, associated — for example, with excessive anxiety, unhealthy grief, or being antisocial and “morbid.” This discomfort with death is certainly not universal, but it does shape the experiences and perspectives of many of the students who take this class.
This class creates a space for students to be able to grapple with these tensions of hypervisibility and invisibility, bringing their own observations and experiences to bear on what the expressive culture of death can teach us about the social, cultural, and political dynamics shaping the experiences of the living.