Why College Students Are Dying to Get Into ‘Death Classes’

March 16, 2014
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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.

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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.

Today, growing numbers of Americans are confronting death as something more than an abstract possibility. So-called death dinners, in which people gather to talk about the inevitable, are increasingly popular; so are death salons, featuring discussions of death over craft beer. Death cafes, events whose dark talk is perked up by tea and cake, have sprouted up in more than 100 cities, according to Lizzy Miles, who hosted the first known one in the U.S. in July 2012 in Westerville, Ohio.

The trend has spread quickly online, with participants publicizing death gatherings on Twitter TWTR +0.26% and posing questions on a popular YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician.”

Luci GutiérrezPhoto by: Luci Gutiérrez

In the 1960s, academics such as Robert Fulton, a University of Minnesota sociologist, and Herman Feifel, a psychologist who taught at Brooklyn College, began arguing that death should be discussed on campuses. By the late 1970s, more than 600 death-related courses were being offered across the U.S., according to “The Handbook of Death and Dying.” Today thousands of such classes can be found across various academic disciplines—from health to philosophy to medical science.

When Illene Cupit, a professor of human development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, first proposed a class on death, dying and loss in 1984, her department chair asked, “Who is going to take a class like that?” The class filled immediately, and the university was forced to cap enrollment at 50.

“Death is coming out of the closet,” Dr. Cupit, now president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, said last year at a death educators’ conference in Hollywood, Calif., near the Walk of Fame. Some 600 death educators, clinicians, medical professionals, funeral and hospice workers, clergy and social workers gathered for the event, whose sessions included advice on managing the gang-related grief of prison inmates and a pet-remembrance service. The burgeoning academic field even has its own journal, Death Studies. Many professors who teach death classes have doctorates in health or psychology or have worked as health practitioners.

Dr. Bowe worked as a nurse in emergency rooms, intensive-care units and psychiatric wards before coming to Kean, where she has taught the death class for 14 years. She knows that her class can be tough to take. She keeps the campus psychologist’s office on speed dial and often refers students there for individual therapy.

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.”

—Ms. Hayasaki is an assistant professor in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. Her book “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

Photo: Getty Images

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