The Death Class

Love and death: no longer just the title of a great Woody Allen movie. Now, in one of the more arresting details in a new book, they are revealed also to be deeply bound in their experiential essence. If we got to choose, most of us would prefer to experience only the fall into love, with its rush of elation and joyous anxiety, but death, alas, comes in the same package. So it’s awfully nice to know that the same  brain chemicals that bring those happy sensations also come flooding back at the moment of death. Flights of angels sing you to sleep, and their names are Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.

This is the sort of fact, offered in the fascinating course of study that is Dr. Norma Bowe’s Death in Perspective class at Kean University and hence in the book by journalist Erika Hayasaki that is a study of her course, we can likely only dispassionately appreciate. But this macabre factual tidbit aside, The Death Class is not centrally concerned with the things that happen when we die: it is about the things that happen when people confront the things that happen when we die. It presents as example a handful of students who were robbed of the luxury to look away from death by events that continually, and too early, forced them into full-frontal consideration of mortality. The gang member whose days found him either on one side of a gun or the other; a girl whose mother seemed bent on offing herself with pills and whose boyfriend’s brother succeeded more efficiently at his own self-annihilation (no doubt encouraged by the fact that his father had earlier knifed his mother to death in their kitchen and later, in prison, did himself in, too); the homeless teen whose transient hotel rooms were always situated next door to death, literally or metaphorically — all of them were attracted to the death class by a harrowing necessity. One of the few but striking technicalities brought up during the progress of their interlocking narratives is what researchers have learned by studying those who study death: almost half the students who enroll in such classes have seriously considered suicide.

That’s a whole lot of disturbed youth: the first course in what has become known as thanatology was offered in 1963; by 1971 there were more than 600 in this country, with the number doubling over the next five years. By the sixties, an era of awakening in general, “some scholars had come to believe that death education was as important as sex education, if not more important — since not everyone had sex,” Hayasaki wryly notes. We seem to have finally admitted something was missing from our core curriculum: the final curtain.

Now death is trending. Showtime’s recent series Time of Death (“real people face to face with their own mortality”); the rocketing phenomenon of the “death salon”; the new volumes, aspirationally including this one, that have suddenly made the shelf of mortality classics — Jessica Mitford’s great The American Way of Death, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, Mary Roach’s Stiff — so short they risk falling off the end and piling on the floor. Or perhaps Western society has just lately been freed from a superstitious taboo that had long buried the one subject we most need to examine. For there is no life without death; it is universal and inevitable and the only thing that is eternal. Its denial is perhaps understandable, as George MacDonald observed in 1875: “Its obscurity is its dread.” But refusal to admit its certainty makes for some bad death experiences. The dying are left alone or fruitlessly manipulated into simulating a lifelike state. Too, the living are distressed by a fear of making the wrong decisions or by ignorance of what is coming.

Topically on fire as The Death Class is, however, its lack of cohesion is unlikely to keep it at the front of what is an assuredly lengthening parade, given a bottomlessly rich subject still wide open to the curious littérateur. Hayasaki’s choice to structure her book as a series of interleaved portraits of a few individuals seems more arbitrary than considered. The people she follows are representative, true, of the on-the-knife’s-edge type most likely to be drawn to classes such as Norma Bowe’s. But they are also the ones who simply happened to be there during the time Hayasaki took the class herself, as a journalistic enterprise. Their stories are certainly intense, these young people who ought not yet to be such close familiars of the Grim Reaper, but they could just as easily make for case studies in dysfunctional family relationships, abnormal pysch, or the heavy human cost of poverty and addiction.

It does not elevate the book’s prospects that its sentences occasionally founder, as here: “In his financial coaching, he had begun sharing his life story with thousands of people, traveling between San Diego and New Jersey to Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Anaheim, and Los Angeles, giving presentations to crowds interested in getting into the real estate field while weaving in his own family’s story and his journey with Josh and ending on a positive message of hope.”

As a writer, Hayasaki is at her most compelling in the Prologue, which describes the book’s genesis in the author’s own close encounters with death,  through both her in-depth reporting on the Virginia Tech massacre and  the murder of her sixteen-year-old friend, the memory of which produces one galvanic passage: “His name was James Yukon McCray. He had a broken heart and a gun.” But it is less the prose than the moving force of the book — Norma Bowe — that powers its message about how to have a good death: live a compassionate life.

How a child whose mother wasted no opportunity to tell her daughter she wished she had never been born, and whose father did business with the Mafia (with all the care and consideration that implies), could grow up to give new meaning to the notion of empathy can only be considered one of psychology’s great mysteries. She not only teaches her students about the physiology of death, its implications for all areas of life and thought; she rescues them from it. She answers calls in the middle of the night, and she answers the call to help humanity whence it comes, near or far. She is friend, counselor, aid worker, and revolutionary in the person of one woman, one “who delighted in cemeteries, the overlooked classrooms beneath our feet.” Her subject, the end, is always just beginning.