What happens after we die? CUOL’s Dr. Angela Sumegi on Death and Afterlife

By Kate Schellenberg

Dr. Angela Sumegi has been teaching the CUOL course ‘Death and Afterlife’ for the past 25 years. Photo submitted.

It’s a question that intrigues many: what happens after we die? This is the topic Dr. Angela Sumegi has been tackling for 25 years in her online course “Death and Afterlife,” and if the 500 plus students who take the course each year are any indication, it’s a question that is on the mind of many Carleton students as well.

The course examines “the meaning of death and afterlife in some religious traditions and secular philosophies with emphasis on the Hindu teaching of the immortal soul; the Hebraic idea of collective survival; the Christian doctrine of resurrection of the body; the Buddhist conception of no-soul and nirvana.”

CUOL sat down with Dr. Sumegi for some answers to our most pressing questions about the course. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CUOL: What made you want to teach this course?

AS:  I found that exploring views on death and the afterlife from various perspectives, from the Indigenous right through to the major world religions, was fascinating. What was fascinating was the connections that could be made between them.

CUOL: What is a common theme in different beliefs about death?

AS: Well, certainly a common belief is that we don’t stop. That’s pretty common to all the traditions, that while death might be the annihilation of the body, it is not the annihilation of the entire personality.

CUOL: You spent some time In India. What did you learn while there?

AS: In the Hindu context, I had the opportunity to see the corpse being carried through the streets, sitting up in a chair covered in flowers, and then taken to the burning ghats [areas where the cremation takes place]. I’ve visited Banaras, which is a very famous place for cremation because it’s thought that if one is cremated and the ashes thrown into the Ganges River, it’is a very direct route to the heaven world.

CUOL: What do you hope students take away from this class?

AS: I hope that it’s a space where they have the opportunity to think about who dies, which is the same question as who lives, and, you know, think about where we are going. We find that all the questions that we ask about death are very much questions we could ask about life.

I would hope that that they take away a deeper understanding of what it is that they don’t know. When a student says, “I don’t know what happens when you die,” I want them to know what, exactly, they do not know,

CUOL: Why do you think this class is so popular?

AS: I think that there’s a desire to understand. We understand what happens to the body. We understand that it rots and that you can’t keep it in the house forever — it’s got to go in the ground. But what is still a very huge mystery is what happened to that person. What happened to that person who wasn’t just body, but was also personality and kindness and anger and intelligence and all the things that constitute a person, which are not body.