Mark Shelvock founded a thanatology club at King’s University College in London, Ont., with the hope of teaching fellow students that the keys to happiness can be found by exploring death. Photo courtesy of Mark Shelvock

Studying death to appreciate life

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  • February 22, 2015

At King’s University College in London, Ont., second-year student Mark Shelvock is hoping to teach others what he’s learned already: that the key to happiness can be found in the exploration of death.

Shocked to discover the school had no academic club attached to its thanatology department, unlike the majority of the school’s departments, Shelvock formed the Than Club motivated by a desire to give back to the King’s community.

“I began to take thanatology classes and instantly fell in love with the subject matter,” said Shelvock. “After seeing how death education drastically changed my perception in a positive way, I felt that it was important to get people to also start talking about thanatology.”

Thanatology is defined as the scientific study of death. It investigates both the mechanism and forensic aspects of death as well as the wider social aspects related to the inevitable.

In early February the club — which facilitates “intellectual stimulation through social situations regarding the fields of death, dying and bereavement in an academic but friendly and welcoming setting” — held its inaugural meeting. The conversations regarding cultural perspectives on death, the dying process and loss associated with death are stimulated through interactive workshops, lectures from guest speakers as well as the recognition of culturally significant celebrations of death, such as All Souls Day.

The inaugural meeting drew 23 students and two professors “which is great considering the bad weather in February and that it’s mid-term season at the university,” said Shelvock.

Although the target audience is the 644 students enrolled in at least one of the school’s 21 thanatology courses, Shelvock said any member of the King’s student body and staff are welcome to join.

The student-run club is managed by Shelvock, co-founder Erin Subick and two vice-presidents, Haley Turner and Yvonne Mawson.

“At our first event it was amazing to see how open the students and faculty were and how excited they are to continue attending the events,” said Turner, a third-year thanatology and psychology double-major. “I joined the Than Club because I wanted to be able to connect with other students who are interested in learning about death, dying and bereavement in an open environment where no judgments are made. I love coming to a place so open where I can learn from others and find out what I can do after my education is complete.”

Thanatology alumni leave with a degree which allows them to apply to post-graduate programs such as law school, medical school and a variety of therapy programs.

Shelvock also garnered the support of Eunice Gorman, a local professor, nurse and social worker, who is serving as the club’s faculty advisor.

For the club’s second meeting, currently being planned, Gorman is to host a physician-assisted suicide discussion. Following her lecture Than Club executives will facilitate conversations which seek to foster intellectual exploration of the “pros and cons” related to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent ruling to allow physician-assisted suicide.

Associate professor Darcy Harris said these kind of conversations are essential to students even though the majority of them are still in their early 20s.

“Thanatology isn’t really about morbidly studying death but really about appreciating life and learning how to live as fully as possible,” said the thanatology department’s co-ordinator. “Many of the students in our program have experienced significant losses in their lives — both death and non-death related — and they find the courses meaningful to their experiences.”

Shelvock echoed that notion.  

“Simply put, grief and loss are a universal event that all humans share,” he said. “Thanatology is a fascinating and unique topic which ought to be celebrated. The club is very beneficial to the King’s community as we seek to enhance the learning opportunities.

“At the end of the day thanatology really gives students an appreciation of life.”

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