'Death Class' Taught Students A Lot About Life

Plenty of college courses delve into the big philosophical questions of life, but Norma Bowe's class was different. For years, the nurse and college professor taught a class that forced students to confront death head-on — there were poems about death, trips to cemeteries and funeral homes, and "goodbye letter" writing assignments. At its core, the class became an opportunity for students to try to come to grips with the death or pending death of a loved one in their own lives.

 

In Death Class, journalist Erika Hayasaki — who covered the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech — tells the story of the class and the students whose lives were changed by it. Click the audio link above to hear Rachel Martin's conversation with Bowe and Hayasaki.

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'Death Class' is surprisingly uplifting

“The Death Class: A True Story About Life,” by Erika Hayasaki

 

Tragedies always make you think about your own mortality. Someday, yes, you’re going to die. But as you’ll see in “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” by Erika Hayasaki, you need to learn to live first.

As a journalist for several larger newspapers, Hayasaki had seen plenty of death. She was at Virginia Tech after the shootings; had been on New York City ’s streets; had seen corpses, interviewed survivors. She’d even been close friends with a victim of domestic violence. And it began to bother her – a lot.

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'The Death Class: A True Story About Life' by Erika Hayasaki

Last year, you went to too many funerals.

There were too many days taken off work to attend wakes. Too much sitting Shiva, too many casseroles eaten in church basements, too much grief and too many friends lost. Even if it only happened once, it was too much.

Tragedies always make you think about your own mortality. Someday, yes, you’re going to die. But as you’ll see in “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” by Erika Hayasaki, you need to learn to live first.

As a journalist for several larger newspapers, Erika Hayasaki had seen plenty of death. She was at Virginia Tech after the shootings, had been on New York City’s streets, had seen corpses, interviewed survivors; she’d even been close friends with a victim of domestic violence. And it began to bother her – a lot.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Nurse Norma Bowe explains why she decided to teach a college course on death and why it became so popular. She’s joined by journalist Erika Hayasaki, to discuss how Norma worked with four extraordinary students from struggling families and difficult neighborhoods toward happiness. She rescued one young woman from her suicidal mother, helped a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and has inspired another to leave his gang life. Hayasaki writes about the class and its impact in The Death Class: A True Story about Life.

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'Death Class' puts emphasis on living fully

As a reporter, Erika Hayasaki covered disasters and American tragedies, but it wasn't until she took a college course on death that she began to understand the difference between the good and the bad way to end.


The class was called "Death in Perspective," and Hayasaki sat in on it for a Los Angeles Times "Column One" story in September 2008. Taught by professor Norma Bowe, the course at New Jersey's Kean University has a three-year waiting list.


Bowe is a former nurse with a "fondness for cemeteries and could spend hours … kicking back on a freshly mowed patch of grass next to the grave of a stranger," writes Hayasaki in her new book, "The Death Class: A True Story About Life" (Simon & Schuster, $25.00). Although she may sound like a character from a Tim Burton film, Bowe is a woman with an abundance of enthusiasm for daily life. She is a teacher with a drive to change attitudes toward, well, expiration and being alive.

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