Gary Laderman

Teaching the class “Death and Dying” this last semester was a real trip. To be honest, it’s a trip every year I teach it—14 straight weeks on bodily decomposition, funeral rituals, grieving, life after death, suicide, and Freud, to name a few of the sobering topics—and so far, after 25 years or so of teaching it, I never grow tired of thinking about death along with small or large groups of undergraduates.
 
But this year was different. Death from the pandemics, in the form of mass death with Covid-19, and in the form of ongoing, singular, unjust deaths of Black human beings fueled by the country’s deep-seated racist diseases, made us all aware of mortality in radically new ways on both existential, political, and intellectual levels. And the fact that this semester around 300 of us were participating in the class remotely, on zoom, each for the most part isolated and alienated, in some way or other, from our normal physical social networks and communities, only made our explorations more personal, philosophical, and, dare I say it, even religious.

In addition to all these peculiar and profound circumstances, I also watched and assisted in my dad’s death while teaching “Death and Dying” in the spring of 2021, simultaneously professing about data and history and comparisons to students, while learning in the real world that I know nothing, that I am a child in a world of wonders and mystery, and misery. In a strange and ironic twist, I was able to fly from Atlanta to Sacramento to spend the last month or so of my dad’s life with him, after we both were vaccinated, because of the pandemic. Teaching classes virtually meant I could operate from anywhere, and as the virus started to recede in the spring, and my dad’s cancer started to spread aggressively to his spine and legs, there was no question in my mind what I wanted to do. My dad was there for my mom when she died of cancer a few years back (and yes, I was teaching “Death and Dying” when she died as well but witnessed that from afar, mostly; you can read all about that experience, and more than you want to know, in my memoir), and there was no way I was going to let him die alone and without family close by. So I flew west.

I did not hide this reality from the students and I did not dwell on it either. They knew I had switched locations for zooming, from my basement-bound bunker office with my books, lava lamp, and Big Lebowski dvd box, to the beautiful sunshine, rose bushes, and singing birds in my dad’s backyard. When I made the move west it was late in the semester, and the few topics we had left to cover included suicide, end of life care and hospice, and psychedelics and death. The convergences in my personal and professional life during this month, and the utterly chaotic and desperate circumstances of watching my 92-year-old dad rapidly decline and close in on, then be taken away by, death, were overwhelmingly stressful at times, and completely, strangely, surreally meaningful, if not transcendent, at other times.

 
There is more to the story than I can tell here. But let me start with the morphine. Before we started the morphine that came along with the home hospice we had set up, my dad was crystal clear to me, my brother, nurses, and caregivers, that he was ready to die, that he wanted it, his life, to be over. He never complained about the pain, even as he started losing his ability to stand, walk, and most crippling, play the violin, which he played beautifully one last time a week or so before the morphine. We talked about death–after all, his son, me, is supposed to be an expert on the subject. He was not afraid of death. He and I took solace in the fact that no one gets out of here alive, that death was a part of life, not its opposite. Much to my surprise, although, then again, maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising at all, considering my interests and pursuits, but… he also asked me about taking mushrooms and whether I thought that might be a good idea for him. I love the guy so much.
 
I will never forget the day I started administering morphine to my dad. It was a Wednesday morning. We thought we were ready for the next step with the new medicine now on hand, but looking back it is clear that at least I was not ready for what was to come over the next five days, even though the nurses consulted us and I read the brochures. It is mind blowing to give your dad morphine, no doubt. Just on its own that act is out of this world, extraordinary, indescribable. The day became even more unreal during the “Death and Dying” class when guest speaker Dr. Bruce BJ Miller, a renowned palliative care provider and end of life specialist, gave one of the more moving, insightful, philosophical, and spiritual presentations I have ever had in a class. It pierced me to my core living in that moment, and intellectually stimulated me as I knew, without having to take any silly assessment measures, that students were captivated and being blown away by his words, precisely because of their new and awakened sense of the reality of death in their lives, their worlds.
 
Listening to Dr. Miller on that day in class affected me deeply, and afterward I wanted to cry and contemplate and collapse in the chair next to my dad’s bed. But that was not to be. Two hours after class I had a commitment to participate on the concluding panel in the Harvard Divinity School’s special lecture series on “Psychedelics and the Future of Religion.” My dad knew about this commitment before the morphine, my brother, the caregivers and nurses as well, and all had insisted that I not pass up this wonderful invitation and opportunity. So later on the first day after introducing the new sacred medicinal drug whose name is derived from the Greek God of dreams, Morpheus, I had a rousing good time with C. Christian Greer, Erik Davis, and Charlies Stang discussing, “Between Sacred & Profane: Psychedelic Culture, Drug Spiritualities, and Contemporary America.” 
 
The next few days were incredibly hard, dreamlike, agonizing, loving, and, at times, completely confounding. As might be expected, he soon was no longer conscious, not unconscious, not subconscious, not quite in an altered state of consciousness as we think of that and drugs. “Awake” and “asleep,” “conscious” and “unconscious” no longer seemed to apply to his state of mind, his state of being. I was truly at a loss as I was losing touch with my dad, though I was committed to carrying the plan forward. After a couple days of administering the morphine, I knew also that I wanted to try it, to see if I could in some way have a glimmer of insight into where he was, what he was experiencing, and if I might be able to meet up with him in our dreams.
 
By the next Monday my dad was dead, dying during the night Sunday when me and my brother were sleeping at the house with him, the first time the three of us slept in the same house in many, many, many years. I did not really debate whether or not to teach my class–my grieving for my dad’s death hit hard immediately when I first arrived to be with him, while he was alive a month or so earlier, and given all we went through in those five days of morphine-fueled “sleep” and “rest” and “comfort” (end of life words I am sick of and find completely disingenuous–for another essay, another time), I was emotionally spent, spiritually exhausted, and intellectually ready for it to be over. Teaching the day of his death wasn’t “work,” or emotionally difficult at all. It was natural, like something that was simply, though uncannily, meant to be,
 
So I taught, from the backyard sitting at the outdoor table with my back to the flowers and corner sanctuary meditation garden, my dad’s favorite spot to sit that included stones, a water fountain, plants, and my mom’s cremated sacred remains. In front of me was the sliding glass door, so as I was teaching the class I could see when the mortuary attendants entered the house, talked with my brother, and retrieved and wheeled the body of my dad out the front door. I’m not sure if the students watching me on zoom had any idea what I was occasionally looking at, or why a strange, crooked smile appeared on my face. We were talking about psychedelics and death, about ego dissolution, about dying before you die, and I smiled some more, realizing how much I love this class, and how much I love thinking about death.
 
This overriding sense of love and death lingers inside me still today, But maybe an even more substantial impression made on my consciousness from this loving and challenging and heart-rending experience was my inability to make sense of it all, to accurately read the signs and discern a right path. As much as we might know and believe about death, it is more of an enigma to me than ever before, a mystery to be embraced, that must be embraced, rather than a reality that can be explained, or ever really made sense of.
 
Having said this, it wouldn’t really surprise you then to hear that after the following Wednesday class, when I told them that my father had died, one of the “Death and Dying” students let me know they had received a spirit communication from my dad, with a very specific message for me. The message was handwritten, attached to the email as a pdf. A first for me, for sure, and a fitting way to finish up a mind-blowing semester, and reinforce the unknowable mysteries death brings to life.
 
Here are some other anonymous comments from students in the class:
 
 
Hi Gary,

 

Just wanted to write and thank you once again for being a great instructor and teaching such an interesting course. The pandemic has forced me to fixate and think about death (more than I would like to sometimes😅), but your course challenged me to figure out my own perspective on death while understanding the various ways death exists and presents itself. I definitely feel more comfortable thinking about death now because of the tools you have given me and am really glad I was able to take a course that has not given me textbook knowledge that I had to memorize for an exam and then never recall again, but knowledge I can carry with me the rest of my life. Looking forward to meeting you in person this upcoming year! Great job again on instructing so well during such an unprecedented time:)

 
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Hi Gary,
 
I hope this email finds you well. 
 

First, I want to thank you for your incredible lectures this year. No joke and no exaggeration. I was fortunate enough to enroll in both Sacred Drugs and Death & Dying, and both of these courses truly expanded my horizons on the preset notions and perspectives that society has on death, religion, and drugs. There was a reason I forced my entire family to watch your featured podcast with Joe Rogan!

 
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After having the fortunate opportunity to listen and take both of Laderman’s famous courses, it is evident that there needs to be more federal investments pertaining to the research and analysis of these drugs to ultimately be available to the general public and not just the terminally ill. 

 

P.S. Thank you so much Gary for this entire semester. I had no idea what I was getting into when I enrolled first in Sacred Drugs, but it was one of the best academic decisions I made this year!

 
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First, I would like to thank you for a fantastic semester! I’m actually a NBB and Econ major so this course was a completely different experience than my usual classes. Right now, I’m remotely taking classes from New York but will return to campus next semester. While at home I like to read out my essays to my parents as a way of proofreading. In addition, I find that explaining the topic to them helps my own understanding as I have to find a way to be concise. This surprisingly led to some of the longest family discussions we’ve had in the house, and I learned a lot more about my parent’s own religious beliefs, which really brought us closer together especially during these troubling times.  I thoroughly enjoyed this course, and it has had a positive impact on my personal life and for that I want to thank you again!
 
 
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Taking a class on Death and Dying during a global pandemic was a surreal and fascinating experience. I have never given much thought to death and the mortality of people before this year and this class because I am not religious and luckily I have not lost anyone close to me. There was real potential for me to feel freaked out and emotionally taxed, by the discussion and study of death, but instead I found it interesting. Death is inevitable and talking about it is important, especially in the middle of a pandemic. The article we read for class called “What Is Death?” in the New York Times has stuck with me throughout the semester. The article focuses on exploring how the pandemic changes how humans perceive death. The author, BJ Miller, writes that he “cant say what [death] is… death is defined by what it lacks”. I have thought about this a lot. Death fascinates us because we know so little about it despite the fact that everyone dies and everyone knows someone who has died. The human experience is defined by death as people try to accomplish their goals before their time runs out. Life and death are opposites and yet don’t exist without one another. Humans can answer the question “what happens to our bodies when we die?”:  we decay. Humans cannot, however, answer the question:” what happens to our souls, our memories, and our mind when we die”. BJ Miller wrote, “I would say that, for me, death is when I can no longer engage with the world around me. When I can no longer take anything in and, therefore, can no longer connect. At times, social distancing has me wondering if I’m there already”. Can someone be dead while alive? I personally don’t think so. Social distancing removes physical interaction but not interaction through media and phone calls. I think social distancing would have been much harder in a time without the technology we have today. These questions I now ask myself are incredibly philosophical and spiritual and I have never thought like this before.
 
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Before the spring semester of 2021, my last undergraduate semester at Emory University, the topic of death was not something that typically crossed my mind. After taking death & dying with Gary Laderman, I can truthfully no longer say that is the case as it has now become a thought that my mind loves to ponder about. The biggest impact that this class had on me is that “everyday people” view death as one of the worst possible outcomes in the world and it is a thought that draws feelings of nervousness, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, etc. The class dug deeper into this methodology and made peers like myself wonder, why is this? Why are people so afraid of death if it is truly the only thing in life that is inevitable? That inevitableness is something that cannot be fought by human beings and the biggest impact was learning that there is true beauty that lies in death. Religions are formed all over the world with life actions and rules that predetermine where we may spend our time in the afterlife. With different views from all over the world, no one truly knows what the afterlife entails and that is the true beauty of something that we cannot fight. I view myself to be a Christian man but at the same time, I do not predicate my actions on where I would spend time in the afterlife. The class taught me to simply enjoy your life, do the things that make you happy, be a good person to preserve the rest of humanity, and at the very end, you have no control so why have fear or doubt? This is one of the biggest takeaways for me because in all the religions we looked at in class, there isn’t one that can be pinpointed and deemed correct over all of the others! At the end of the day, the class by Laderman taught me to enjoy your life, do right in your own eyes, and don’t fight the inevitable.
 
 
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On a different note, thank you for creating the Death and Dying playlist; I’ve been enjoying it very much. It has many great new songs but also many familiar ones whose lyrics I’ve never paid attention to. For example, Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper has always been one of my favorites but only since seeing it on your playlist did I realize that the lyrics discuss the inevitability of death. For a pop song, the lyrics are actually quite deep.
 
 
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Hi Professor Laderman,

 

I hope you’re doing well. My name is    and I took your course on Death and Dying this semester. I just wanted to reach out and sincerely thank you for such an interesting course and tell you that I have grown and learned a lot taking it. I’m sure that handling a topic like death as a professor is complicated, and I so appreciated your openness and willingness to approach hard topics. On a personal note, by having such a welcoming space to confront topics surrounding death, I feel much less scared of it. I hope you have a great summer, and thank you again for everything.

 
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I have enjoyed my time studying death this semester. As our class comes to a close, I now recognize and appreciate the importance of studying death, and I would encourage all students to do so if they have the opportunity. Even though there are so many takeaways I have from this course, one stands out in particular: COVID-19 has increased my frequency of thinking about death, and that does not have to be a bad thing. With today’s headlines being dominated by the carnage caused by the pandemic, in combination with frequent questioning of daily activities I previously assumed to be safe, it is hard not to think about morality. Before taking this course, the thought of death gave me fear and anxiety: what does it feel like? Will it be painful? There are so many unknowns surrounding death that it made me scared to think that it will one day happen to me. Then, during the course of the semester, I read Emma Pattee’s article in The Washington Post and found it to be one of the most impactful pieces that we covered, especially in part because of the idea that “it’s imperative that you be in denial about your impending death.” It is so easy to get caught up in the little stresses and frustrations of everyday life – now more than ever. But the constant reminders of death in our pandemic-ridden world have allowed me to make peace with morality, and have inspired me to live a life worth remembering. Pattee’s article discusses how people can become more humble, grateful, and appreciative of life when they are reminded of morality, and this idea has had the biggest impact on me this semester. I fully embrace my impending death and it has inspired me to appreciate the beautiful gift of life and make a meaningful contribution to others’ lives while I am here. It is my hope that others recognize that reminders about death do not need to cause anxiety, but rather provide a sense of purpose and source of inspiration. 
 
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Gary,
 
It’s been quite a whirlwind of a year and I wanted to say thank you for being a compassionate and engaging figure in this remote world! Both of your classes this year encouraged me to expand my own perspectives on some of the more controversial topics in the modern age and reminded me how important it is to be open to ideas beyond your own.
 
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Prior to this semester, I had not previously put any conscious thought into the idea of death, and I took this class for that exact reason. From reading the course description and attending the first couple classes, I was already intrigued even though we had just scratched the surface. I was fascinated that this topic, which plays such a massive role in all our lives, has been something I have rarely talked about or analyzed. I believe this general idea of critically discussing death and analyzing the way that we feel about it has had the largest impact on me. However, to be more specific, my views on death have been largely altered by simply taking the time to learn, think, and talk about them. I have been enthralled by learning about the way different cultures treat death in comparison to my own feelings towards it. Taking the time this semester to listen in class, discuss topics with classmates outside of lectures, and reflect throughout readings and prompts has given me the opportunity to be introspective about death in a way that I have never experienced before. In addition to my personal experience, as the fourth topic points out, we have been constantly surrounded by death throughout the past year due to COVID-19, the recent prevalence of continued racial injustice, and mass shootings that fill recent memory. I believe the combination of these factors and the prevalence of death in my life in the past couple years made the timing of this semester even more powerful for me. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity it has given me to reflect on past experiences and emotions regarding death, and how it will shape my views going forward. 
 
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Hi Dr. Laderman,
I really enjoyed class today. I decided to continue my education in real life. I made it out to the Oakland cemetery! While I was walking around, I noticed some couples picnicking near the headstones. I found it strange that some people chose to picnic there.
 
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It was a special, unexpected gift to have taken this class in the spring of 2021. Prior to this year, contemplations on death had the luxury of being fleeting moments of lucidity. To me, they were moments like lying in bed and having the stark realization that waking up in the morning wasn’t granted. Or moments of reading specific chapters for other religion classes. Or moments of worrying about my family and friends and where they were or what they were doing. This year transformed death from a whirlpool in a sink to a ruthless tropical storm. The complexities lying behind the shapes adopted by death this year, whether it was the “covid” form or the “racial injustice” form, will continue to occupy thoughts for decades to come. What just happened? Truly, what the hell is going on? Emma Pattee’s article “Covid-19 makes us think about our mortality. Our brains aren’t designed for that.” discusses how the pandemic has brought death to the forefront of thought in people across the world. To answer the prompt directly, death is viewed differently in our culture now, simply because it is viewed more. The perspective of having an imminent threat of death around us has sprouted a shift in priorities for many people who want to experience life to the fullest, after having been chronically faced with a reminder that each day is not granted. To cope, some people have even put up shields of insensitivity to the growing number of casualties broadcasted on the news each day. Pattee writes about certain predictable responses to the covid pandemic’s constant reminder of death; one of these responses is “an urge to make yourself feel safe.” This brings us into the other pandemic: that of racial injustice. At a time when more than anything, people want to feel safe, racially-driven violence has taken our country to an entirely different level of suffering. This is not to say the pandemic of racial injustice is in any way new. However, the covid pandemic has somehow worked in tandem with growing racial injustice to reframe it in people’s minds – here, we have a virus that is ruthlessly killing thousands of people a day. The virus has no regard for whether these people have families, whether they were good or bad in life, what they stood for. The virus treats humans as objects to be eliminated. The virus is the enemy, how evil could it be to take lives with such little consideration? And then footage comes out of a human being – a police officer, nonetheless – taking a life with the same lack of regard or care or respect as a protein shell filled with some DNA. We could have been united under this common biological enemy. And yet, in a time when death was all around us, more death was incited on bases of hatred and discrimination. While I have learned more about it this semester in this class, I feel in many ways more lost than ever before. This year and this semester have sparked what I believe will be a lifelong journey of trying to understand how it all unfolded, and how to somehow keep going.
 
 
 
Gary Laderman is here.
 
 

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