March 20, 2014

Death 101

Why College Students Are Dying to Get Into 'Death Classes'  by Erika Hayasaki in the Wall Street Journal

Thousands of college courses on dying and mortality are being held nationwide—and teaching lessons about life.

At Kean University, students are dying (as it were) to get into Norma Bowe's class "Death in Perspective," which has sometimes carried a three-year waiting list. On one field trip to a local coroner's office, Dr. Bowe's students were shown three naked cadavers on metal tables. One person had died from a gunshot, the other from suicide and the third by drowning.

The last corpse appeared overweight but wasn't; he had expanded like a water balloon. A suspect in a hit-and-run case, he had fled the scene, been chased by police, abandoned his car and jumped into the Passaic River. On the autopsy table, he looked surprised, his mouth splayed open, as if he realized he had made a mistake. As the class clustered around, a technician began to carve his torso open. Some students gagged or scurried out, unable to stand the sight or the smell.

This grim visit was just one of the excursions for Dr. Bowe's class. Every semester, students also leave the campus in Union, New Jersey, to visit a cemetery, a maximum-security prison (to meet murderers), a hospice, a crematory and a funeral home, where they pick out caskets for themselves. The homework is also unusual: Students are required to write goodbye letters to dead loved ones and to compose their own eulogies and wills.

Sure, it's morbid. But graduates of Dr. Bowe's death class and others like it across the U.S. often come away with an important skill: the ability to talk frankly about death.
--
Not all students who take death classes have high-minded motivations. One student was spurred to take Dr. Bowe's death class by watching A&E's ghoulish reality show "The First 48," about the early days of murder investigations. But most of the young people were, in different ways, haunted by death—coping with suicidal family members, the violent deaths of loved ones or terrifying personal encounters with cancer. The class offered them a rigorous, carefully guided opportunity for the kind of reflection that many people do only in old age or after receiving a terminal diagnosis.

"The democracy of death encompasses us all," Dr. Feifel once wrote. "To deny or ignore it distorts life's pattern… In gaining an awareness of death, we sharpen and intensify our awareness of life."
Posted by Jill Fallon at March 20, 2014 10:09 PM | Permalink