Understanding death

In the latest episode of Penn Today’s ‘Understand This ...’ podcast series, assistant professor of Religious Studies Jolyon Thomas and Director of Pastoral Services James Browning explore dialogues around death.

Rose on top of tombstone

Welcome to the third episode of “Understand This ...,” a Penn Today podcast. With the onset of a global pandemic comes the inevitable questions surrounding death: How do I talk about it? How can I prepare? How do I mourn? What is a ‘good’ death? And while not all of these questions can be answered, they are worth discussing. 

Joining in this edition of the podcast, which brings together different disciplines in the University to tackle shared problems, is Chaplain James Browning, director of pastoral care at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Jolyon Thomas, assistant professor of religious studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. Together, they explore the delayed grief the pandemic has brought, traditions of mourning, and an unpacking of what a dignified death may, or may not, look like. 

4:35: Browning discusses navigating death with people in the hospital. 

8:55: Thomas talks about the unique moment of being surrounded by the “capriciousness” of death.

12:10: Browning recalls the collective mourning of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy and the concept of “storing up grief” during the pandemic.

15:50: Thomas explores the idea of selective mourning. “We run a risk as soon as we put things into a national frame, because these are things that don’t respect national boundaries; a pandemic doesn’t respect national boundaries,” he says. “… We have a duty to think about the much broader global community.”

18:50: Thomas places death in the context of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, describing how those instances of mass death have been memorialized.

22:40: Browning remembers an instance of allowing a patient to die on their own terms.

25:30: Quote break: a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Burial” verses from “Leaves of Grass.”

26:30: Thomas describes the Buddhist tradition of dealing with death. 

31:00: Browning explains meeting people where they are with their beliefs, as a chaplain.

42:40: Browning emphasizes using the word “death” plainly and asking people about what they need. “It’s like the elephant in the room,” he says.

51:00: Thomas talks about planning for death and recognizing mortality without being morbid.

This episode is available for download through Apple Music.