Enjoy a Q&A with Baylor Interdisciplinary Core Professor Candi Cann about her new book Death and Religion: The Basics

January 30, 2023
In her recent book, Death and Religion: The Basics, Dr. Candi Cann, Associate Professor of Religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, leads readers through a thorough and accessible introduction to dying, death, grief, and conceptions of the afterlife in world religions. In honor of the book’s release, Dr. Cann answers a few questions about her newest work:

Who might be interested in this book?

This book is great for the person working in the field of death and dying in a multi-cultural or pluralistic environment. In other words, it’s perfect for anyone working in the health industry, religious ministry or the funeral home industry, or anyone working adjacent to those fields. Many doctors and health professionals don’t know enough about different religious contexts and their influence on how a person views the dying process or grieves. My book offers resources to approach people from different backgrounds and to equip them with the necessary tools they need to die better and grieve well. For example, in some cultures dying is viewed as a communal process, and the family might not even inform the dying person that they are dying. This might be difficult for some American doctors to understand; knowing this might help them better support patients and families with different views of dying, death, and grief.

Tell us more about the context of your work. What first intrigued you about death, grief, and the afterlife?

I first became interested in this topic when I took a course at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa titled “Death and Dying in Buddhist Cultures.” Each week we would meet at a different Buddhist temple on the island of O’ahu and discuss a formative book on death in each particular Buddhist tradition, and then we would listen to funerary chanting, and eat a vegetarian Buddhist meal for lunch. The sensory experience of that course—which engaged my hearing, my sense of taste—made me love this subject unlike any other course. I had also grown up in a family that experienced a lot of deaths (as a child my family even had a double funeral one weekend), so the course helped make sense of my experiences in a way that I found engaging and meaningful. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Was there anything about your research for this specific work that surprised you?

I think the most interesting thing I have found in my work is that there is, in fact, no universal definition of death. Most Americans think of death as a moment—the biological cessation of life—but this isn’t necessarily how every culture views death, and the invention of modern technologies have complicated our traditional understanding of death even further. So now, the wealthiest countries in the world tend to view death as defined by some definition of brain death, while poorer countries still center their understandings of death on cardio-pulmonary definitions of death—and that’s simply a matter of access to money and technology. So, death isn’t even universally understood or defined.

Medical systems in countries complicate this even further—both the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, utilize brain death as their standard of determination of death—but the United Kingdom relies on partial brain death (death in the brain stem only) as its definition, whereas the United States utilizes whole brain death. Partial brain death is much cheaper to prove, which makes sense in a socialized medical care system, while whole brain death is the gold standard in the U.S., which relies on a private medical system to foot the bill for expensive testing. So, the definition of death varies across the globe, and is in part defined by our economy and technology.

How does learning about death and dying change how we live our lives?

Everyone will die, and I believe the better prepared we are to face our deaths, the better lives we will live. Knowing we have an endpoint means that we can learn to grasp each moment fully and live life to its utmost. Also, losing our loved ones is always painful, yet knowing that grief is a shared experience that is a part of every life can help those living through grief.

Interested readers can order a copy of Death and Religion: The Basics by clicking here.