7 Questions with Mary Ann Cutter, author of “What is Death? A Global Reader”

Mary Ann Cutter, professor of philosophy at UCCS, researches, writes and teaches on the philosophies of medicine, disease and bioethical topics. Her scholarly foci include genetics, death and dying, breast cancer and AIDS.

Cutter, the recipient of the 2019-20 Elizabeth D. Gee Memorial Lectureship Award, recently authored “What is Death? A Global Reader,” published in 2019 by Notre Dame University Press.

She answered seven questions on her new book, which presents 13 themes in order to convey a sense of major views of death in Eastern and Western literature – and illustrates that although we all die, humans do not share the same view of dying.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

“What is Death? A Global Reader” presents a collection of primary source readings on how death is understood from prominent global perspectives that span ancient to contemporary discussions in philosophical and sacred texts.

The collection includes views of death as physical disintegration, psychological disintegration, reincarnation, resurrection, medical immortality, digital immortality, an existential phenomenon of life, bad or good, to be feared or not, to be grieved and how, and to be hastened or not in the case of suicide, treatment refusal and physician-assisted suicide.

Primary source readings are contextualized for readers and then serve as a basis for a set of exercises that engage readers in reflections about conceptual as well as practical issues regarding death.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

I come to this project after many years teaching an undergraduate course on death and dying in the Department of Philosophy here at UCCS. In high school, I remember thinking at length about the choice Hamlet entertains, “To be or not to be.” In college, I first read Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death” and fell in love with philosophy and the nuanced interpretations it offers about seemingly settled matters.

During my graduate studies in philosophy, my mother passed away and I know that this loss framed my life and work in the years that came after. In my career, I have spent my academic life teaching a course on biomedical ethics and entertaining topics from womb to tomb.

To date, I, along with everyone else, have experienced the loss of loved ones, cherished possessions, hopes, abilities and time on this earth. My interest in death and dying has not diminished; it has grown stronger as I see the relevancy of philosophical thinking on matters of loss and change.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

Yes, the focus of the project changed throughout the research and writing process as I explored shared and disparate themes regarding death around the world. Interviews with those from particular traditions helped me cluster views within traditions of thought on death and explore shared themes among some very different traditions.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

In the past 15 years, I have been drawn to end-of-life issues regarding death and dying in part because such topics continue to be quite taboo and yet so important to all of us, because we will all die. As a philosopher, I am intrigued that humans have such difficulty talking about a matter of life that affects everyone.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

My favorite time to write is in the morning. Since the children are now all grown and living independently, I now have options for quiet writing spaces at work and at home. I write as if I am giving a lecture: I conceptualize the general outline for the section I am working on and imagine that I am giving a lecture about the subject matter. This helps me ensure that I am communicating outside of myself and my discipline to talk about matters that affect all of us.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

As French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) famously said, echoing the Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.), ‘to study philosophy is to learn to die’ (1952, 28). Revised for this study of death, we could say that ‘to study philosophy and sacred texts is to learn to live.

Montaigne develops his point in this way: ‘because study and contemplation do in some sort withdraw from us our soul, and employ it separately from the body, which is a kind of apprenticeship and a resemblance of death; or else, because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world do in the end conclude in this point, to teach us not to fear to die’ (1952, 28). In other words, a study of death can help clarify our own views and teach us to rethink cherished views, leading to a death of sorts of some of our taken-for-granted concepts, methods, and values. It can teach us to come to terms with what we know and what we do not or cannot know, thus leading us to rethink the fear we have of death.

In short, a study of death through philosophical and sacred texts is an investigation of life and living and what it means to be human in our day-to-day life.”

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered? 

The question I am currently working on is, “How has COVID-19 changed how we view death?”

We all recall seeing photos of refrigerator trucks that supposedly held the bodies of those who passed from COVID-19 infection. We all saw the photos of those dying alone in hospitals across the world. Such images were profound not only because we addressed through these visuals taboos about death in our culture, but because there is no spiritual or secular tradition on death that supports dying in these ways. In addition, many of us experienced fears of the source of the technological interventions that we place our hopes in addressing COVID-19, namely, medicine. This leads us to rethink our reliance on medical ways of controlling death in the 21st century.

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.