MANHATTAN, Kan. – For many, death is a topic considered forbidden or taboo. For one early modern French historian, death is a window that reflects the “culture of the time”.
Albert N. Hamscher, Kenneth S. Davis professor of history at Kansas State University, stumbled across a book by Philippe Ariès, which would later become the inspiration for his long time obsession.
“Early modern France is my day job,” said Hamscher. “Death and dying became a hobby of mine.”
He turned his hobby into the first and only college history class about death and dying in the U.S.
Hamscher began assigning Ariès’ “Western Attitudes towards Death from the Middle Ages to the Present,” to present a different aspect of historical thinking. He said, history is more than studying when things happened. Studying history is a combination of looking at multiple elements including economic and cultural details.
Hamscher created his course after being approached by several students whom developed an interest in Ariès teachings about death and dying. He created the course over a summer. In order to add a local element to his class, he incorporated cemeteries and headstones into the course work. He said, cemeteries are a physical relic and the final resting place and connection between the dead and the living.
“Cemeteries reflect the attitudes and values of the culture of the time,” said Hamscher. The culture of the time presents death as taboo, he said.
If death is an American taboo, Hamscher’s class enrollment does not show it. Hamscher’s class enrollment repeatedly fills up on the first or second day, said Louise Breen, associate professor of history at K-State.
“This course is a sellers-market,” said Hamscher in his crude but powerful Philadelphia accent. “If you don’t like the material, get the hell out of here. Death and dying is kind of like sex. It intrigues people.”
It is that taboo factor that drives Hamscher to ask why?
“I look at cemeteries and I ask why,” he said. “Why the hell do these people do what they do?”
Hamscher describes memorial cemeteries and how they differ from traditional cemeteries in his article “Scant Excuse for the Headstone.” Traditional cemeteries have a feeling of proximity between the dead and the living, said Hamscher. Walkways and benches allow the cemetery visitor to come in close proximity of love ones and reflect on the experience. Memorial cemeteries distance the dead from the living, he said. “Why are those people like that and these people like this?” Hamscher asked.
Hamscher has attempted to answer this question in his many publications about death and dying and regular guest lectures at venues across Kansas. His obsession of the relationship between the living and departed creates an intriguing curiosity.
People are curious about the history of cemeteries, said Claire Dehon, wife of Hamscher. “Not only because they learn about history, but also they can relate it through their private lives.”
It is this curiosity that fueled Hamscher’s interest in history even from his early years in Philadelphia, Pa.
“I’ve always wanted to study history. Ever since high school,” he said.
Hamscher worked hard to fulfill his dream. He has won four undergraduate teaching awards and one distinguished graduate facility award at K-State.
The secret to his success: “work hard, play hard”, said Hamscher.
“When it comes to work, I’m like a laser beam; dead on,” he said.
Hamscher’s mother graduated high school and his father graduated the sixth grade. In order to make it to graduate school, he knew he had to be in good company. He joined Phi Kappa Theta at Pennsylvania State University and always worked extra to fulfill his dreams.
“What I had to do when I was younger is out work everyone else,” said Hamscher. “If you want to work 10, I’ll work 12. If you want to work 12, I’ll work 14. I was always in good company.”
When it comes to hard work, Hamscher is dead on. When it comes to play time, he knows how to relax. He frequents Jamaica with his wife, is a member of Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan Kan., and is known as “Eagles Al” on Sports talk WIBW 580.
Hamscher’s fascination with the Philadelphia Eagles stems from childhood. His father would take him to watch the local neighborhood Frankford Yellow Jackets play football. The Yellow Jackets later became the Eagles and he has been hooked ever since. At a local bar, Hamscher can be heard on a football Sunday chanting E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles! When it comes down to the Phillies, “I gave up on them in 1964,” he said.
Hamscher’s fascination with history is as timeless as the subject he studies.
“I’m probably going to take a sabbatical,” he said. “Then after paying my debt back to the university for a year, I plan on working half-time. Half-pay, but half time. I can never stop working. I can’t sit and do nothing three days in a row.”
Hamscher says the key to longevity is to always stay active; work hard and play hard. He swims three times per week. He once won three silver medals, one bronze and a gold at the Kansas Senior Olympics for swimming, “smoking a cigar between each race.”
Hamscher says anyone can make it. Hard work and dedication to your study is the key, he said.
“Life is too short. Work hard, but play hard,” he said. Indeed Hamscher will follow this philosophy until the day he joins the departed whom he studies.