The Death Class: A True Story About Life

The Death Class: A True Story About Life

by Erika Hayasaki

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The poignant, “powerful” (The Boston Globe) look at how to appreciate life from an extraordinary professor who teaches about death: “Poetic passages and assorted revelations you’ll likely not forget” (Chicago Tribune).

Why does a college course on death have a three-year waiting list? When nurse Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a college in New Jersey, she never expected it to be popular. But year after year students crowd into her classroom, and the reason is clear: Norma’s “death class” is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our “one wild and precious life.”

Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another. In The Death Class, award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki followed Norma for more than four years, showing how she steers four extraordinary students from their tormented families and neighborhoods toward happiness: she rescues one young woman from her suicidal mother, helps a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and inspires another to leave his gang life behind. Through this unorthodox class on death, Norma helps kids who are barely hanging on to understand not only the value of their own lives, but also the secret of fulfillment: to throw yourself into helping others.

Hayasaki’s expert reporting and literary prose bring Norma’s wisdom out of the classroom, transforming it into an inspiring lesson for all. In the end, Norma’s very own life—and how she lives it—is the lecture that sticks. “Readers will come away struck by Bowe’s compassion—and by the unexpectedly life-affirming messages of courage that spring from her students’ harrowing experiences” (Entertainment Weekly).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451642957
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 632,603
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Erika Hayasaki spent nine years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times before becoming an assistant professor in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award, the Association of Sunday Feature Editors Award, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Breaking News Award.

Read an Excerpt

Death Class

  • When it came to death, Norma Bowe had the fearlessness of a swift-water rescue team; when everyone else wanted to get away from the force of the current, she went charging straight into it instead. Not many threats in this world seemed to rattle her: not guns, murderers, or the criminally insane, and certainly not death. With cheeks that swelled when she smiled as if she’d stuck a Tootsie Pop beneath each one and a high-pitched reverberating laugh, she made you feel as though, if you could only hold on to her hands long enough, you might just be the one person lucky enough to escape.

    There was an air of invincibility surrounding her, a feeling so magnetic that long after class had been dismissed students found themselves wanting to hang out with “Dr. Bowe,” which was what they called her, despite her insistence that they call her Norma. They lingered in her office for hours, even when she wasn’t there. When she actually did get sick or injured, some of them reacted with stunned disbelief, as if they didn’t think a woman like that could be mortal. But she knew there was an art to surviving. That is what she wanted her students to learn.

    Norma had a fondness for cemeteries and could spend hours perusing inscriptions on tombstones or kicking back on a freshly mowed patch of grass next to the grave of a stranger. If she had enough free time, which was rare, she might even bring along one of her favorite Jodi Picoult novels to read. When traveling to a new city, Norma did not think it at all odd to pay a visit to the local graveyard, snapping photos as if it were a regular tourist destination. She believed cemeteries held the stories that history books could not always document; they were the overlooked, underused classrooms beneath our feet, so it made sense to her to teach a lesson inside one every once in a while.

    The Rosedale & Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey, where her students convened one summer night, was bordered by an auto-stripping business, a school-bus yard, a truck repair shop, a warehouse, and a headstone company, Payless Monuments. As dusk fell, students parked their cars in a line as if part of a funeral procession along a quiet road that meandered through the cemetery. The memorial grounds would have been mostly empty without her class, except for the squirrels, crickets, and crows. Norma planned to give a lecture here on the biology of dying, and she had warned the students beforehand that it would be important to take notes; questions about it could end up on the final exam.

    “Hi, everyone,” she said, waving with a wide smile as she pulled up late to the cemetery in her silver Mazda minivan full of students. Norma and her students jokingly referred to it as the “party bus,” because the van spent its days shuttling students on field trips to prisons, funeral homes, hospice care centers, mental hospitals, and morgues. Its bumper sticker read AMERICA NEEDS A WOMAN PRESIDENT, and its floors and seats were littered with pink highlighters, an unopened Doritos bag, a dozen stuffed purple bunnies, a Celtic Thunder CD, the sound track of Hairspray, and clusters of straws sealed in paper wrapping.

    She emerged like a fairy godmother before her students, hopping out of the van and hurrying into the graveyard with all eyes on her, walking with a side-to-side wag, a slight stoop of the shoulders, her feet nudged outward like a pair of wings.

    “Nothing like a good cemetery, right?” she asked, rounding everyone up.

    She had long brassy hair that she usually wore down, like today, or in a high ponytail when it frizzed in humidity. Her eyes changed colors in the light, like speckled brown jade, and her skin was flushed in the face, more suntanned on the arms and chest with a spattering of freckles. Her underactive thyroid made it easy for her to gain weight and hard to lose it, and she barely ate with her nonstop schedule, subsisting on unsweetened iced Dunkin Donuts’ lattes. She was pear-shaped and pretty, with a sturdy frame that locked her soft edges into place. During non–work days, she dressed folksy: long, flowing skirts, walker’s sandals, turquoise and silver jewelry, and trinkets the color of bones. At work, she sometimes dressed as if she might be called to attend a funeral at any moment, which happened occasionally: black skirts, black dresses, black stockings, black heels. For color, she’d add a bright scarf.

    Today she wore black billowy pants and a black cardigan over a pink blouse, with scarlet lipstick and a green gemstone bracelet. Her heavy key chain jangled as she walked, containing more keys than any one person could possibly need, along with membership cards for places such as Petco Pals, Borders, Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Curves health club for women.

    “Guess what?” she said in her singsong voice, which always seemed as though it were stuck in falsetto. “There’s a crematory across the street.” That was where they burned bodies, she explained to the students, suggesting that maybe they could stop by and check it out later.

    The professor led everyone on a tour of the grounds, straightening roses on graves and standing tipped-over fences and flags upright. Dandelions and white clover pushed through the ground as Norma took moments of silence to pay tribute to the bodies beneath.

    The cemetery was divided into neighborhoods, mirroring a typical big city: Chinese, Spanish, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Greek.

    If the Chinese section had been a real neighborhood, it probably would have boasted the highest property values. Its tall arched pillars bore the name Greater Chinatown Community Assn. Rows of polished pink or shiny gray headstone blocks, some as big as refrigerators, stretched into the horizon. Engraved into the facades were intricate bamboo designs and horizontal Chinese characters, but English lettering could also be found on some, names such as Low, Lam, Lau, Chung, Wong, Kong. Small red rocks balanced atop some headstones, as if placed there as offerings.

    Norma parked herself here, sitting cross-legged in front of a thirty-six-ton granite sculpture of a 1982 diesel Mercedes-Benz 2400 with a license plate reading RAY TSE. Rising from a low stone slab behind a Roman-style pillared mausoleum, the memorial had been built to look like an entombed car, right down to the headlights, windshield wipers, door handles, and Mercedes logos on the trunk, nose, and rims—except for a missing hood ornament, left off because it would have been too easy to break off and pocket.

    Students rubbed their fingers along the smooth granite. As the story went, fifteen-year-old Raymond Tse, Jr., had wanted his own Mercedes, but he had died in a car accident in 1981 before ever having a chance to earn his driver’s license. His millionaire older brother, the landlord and businessman Raymond David Tse, paid for the tribute, estimated at $250,000.

    “When I think about what the body does when we die, it’s not like there’s a point where everything shuts down,” Norma noted. “It doesn’t happen all at once.”

    She made clear that she was speaking of natural deaths from disease and physical ailments, not sudden deaths from murders or car accidents. In violent deaths, bodies don’t have time to make those little adjustments for our comfort. “It’s wild how the body works,” she went on. “Our bodies take care of us our entire lifetime, take care of us when we’re sick, when we’re ill. At the very end it does that too.”

    “The first thing that happens is, the circulatory system begins to shift the blood supply to all of the major organs,” Norma said. “We’re very hardwired to survive, so the brain gets the message; rather than the heart pumping blood all the way to the tips of the toes and back up again, it really just starts to pool to the major organs, heart, lungs, brain, digestive system, kidneys, liver. So a lot of times people will begin to complain of feeling cold. They will ask for a blanket, even if it’s a hundred degrees in August.”

    That meant death is near, she explained, three weeks away, maybe two. The body temperature can drop a degree or more. Hands and feet take on the frigid feel of refrigerated poultry. Arms and legs begin to look pasty, draped over bones like pie dough, sometimes gray or violet, blotchy, like a web of bruises. Nail beds turn blue; the lines around the mouth, blue too. Blood vessels protrude near the surface of the skin, like varicose veins. The blood lacks oxygen and is no longer cherry red, as healthy blood should be. Instead, it turns a deep, black merlot, so dark it appears blue beneath the skin. This, Norma explained, is called “cyanosis.”

    Another sign of impending death: fading eyesight. A dying person might want brighter lighting, the curtains open. While sight is among the first senses to go, she said, hearing is last. You must not assume that a dying person doesn’t know what is going on around him or her, she explained, but carry on as if he or she can hear everything. You can read the newspaper to him or her, leaning close to his or her ears as you speak.

    A week or so before death, the blood shifts again, this time away from the digestive system and to the kidneys, heart, lungs, and liver. “That makes it so people stop feeling hungry,” she said. “They don’t want to eat any more.” Favorite meals do not spark the same glimmer of delight. They won’t complain of hunger or thirst, even in the absence of intravenous feeding tubes. The body won’t miss the satisfaction of an overstuffed belly, won’t crave what it no longer needs. If you hold a stethoscope to the abdomen, Norma said, listen for bowel sounds: the contracting movement of muscles pushing food down the digestive tract—or peristalsis—has slowed, maybe even stopped. “So what do we do?” she said. We who love them want to feed them anyway. “We tell them, ‘You’ll like it, it’s good,’ ” she said. They might become bloated, nauseous, constipated, or begin vomiting. “We force-feed people,” she said. “It makes us feel better, folks, it doesn’t make them feel better.”

    When the liver has begun to shut down, usually a few days before death, a person might become more agitated, shifting around in bed, and the whites of the eyes turn yellow. “It might look like they’re in agony,” Norma explained. Toxic waste has been building up in their bodies because the liver has stopped filtering it as it used to.

    The breathing becomes rapid and shallow, up to fifty breaths per minute, mostly through an open, drooling mouth. The respiratory rate slows, the heart beats staccato. Death may be just hours away now. At times it might seem as if there is little attempt to breathe at all, a pause of ten seconds, as when a sleeping person snores deeply, then does not inhale for a few seconds, before letting out a long, rapid whoosh of air. “Those periods of apnea will get longer and longer,” Norma said. This phase might be accompanied by short heaving gasps or barking: the “agonal phase.”

    Saliva, unable to be swallowed, builds up deep in the back of the throat, too deep for nurses to suction it out, causing a congested, purring sound—the “death rattle.”

    This is known as Cheyne-Stokes respiration, named after John Cheyne and William Stokes, two physicians who first described and documented the breathing pattern in the nineteenth century. “Air comes into the mouth, and it just goes about as far as the trachea, that’s it,” Norma said. “Breathing is more rapid. Cheyne-Stokes breathing, when it starts, you have just a few hours, maybe twenty-four hours.”

    “It is like asthma?” a student asked.

    “No,” she replied. “With asthma, bronchioles are constricted, you can hear wheezing and people struggling to breathe.” Cheyne-Stokes breathing, she said, “is very peaceful. It’s just a little bit of air being exchanged.”

    Euphoria sets in. The body takes care of the dying mind. The mind takes care of the dying body. “You know that great feeling, when you first meet somebody you’re really attracted to, when you fall in love? We’ve all had that feeling,” Norma said. It’s caused by seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. “Those chemicals will continue to increase, and they are at peak in the moment when you die.”

    The neurotransmitters that carry nerve impulses between cells, causing feelings of joy or euphoria, counter pain, even as the blood pressure continues to plummet, the skin turns a dull grayish hue, and the capillaries in the nose thicken. “Imagine, your dying brain gets flooded with this stuff,” Norma went on.

    Little by little, the pulse rate and blood pressure go up and within an hour start to drastically drop. “Your heart rate will continue to drop until your heart stops.”

    “Your breathing will stop first,” Norma said. “The heartbeat will stop last.”

    The time of death will be recorded once the heart has stilled, she said. If you examine the pupils, they will look dilated and dull, vacant.

    “The appearance of a newly lifeless face cannot be mistaken for unconsciousness,” wrote Sherwin B. Nuland in How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. “Within a minute after the heart stops beating the face begins to take on the unmistakable gray-white pallor of death; in an uncanny way, the features very soon appear corpselike, even to those who have never before seen a dead body. A man’s corpse looks as though his essence has left him and it has.”

    The body temperature cools by one degree per hour. Livor mortis, a red marbling of the skin, sets in. Within twenty-four hours, rigor mortis, a stiffening of tissues, ensues, beginning with the face and moving down through the corpse. Then, as though thawing, the body again goes limp. Norma had seen all of this happen hundreds of times while working as a nurse, in places such as the neurology intensive care unit. But, she added, “there’s a lot we can’t explain. We just don’t know everything that happens when people die.”

    TO EMPHASIZE THAT point, she followed her biology of dying lecture with a story from when she had been a young nurse on hospital rounds. As she explained to her students, patients often awoke from very bad illnesses or cardiac arrests, talking about how they had been floating over their bodies. “Mm-hmmm,” Norma would reply, sometimes thinking, Yeah, yeah, I know, you were on the ceiling.

    Such stories were recounted so frequently that they hardly jolted medical personnel. Norma at the time had mostly chalked it up to some kind of drug reaction or brain malfunction, something like that.

    “No, really,” said a woman who’d recently come out of a coma. “I can prove it.”

    The woman had been in a car accident and been pronounced dead on arrival when she was brought into the emergency room. Medical students and interns had begun working on her and managed to get her heartbeat going, but then she had coded again. They’d kept on trying, jump-starting her heart again, this time stabilizing it. She’d remained in a coma for months, unresponsive.

    Then one day she awoke, talking about the brilliant light and how she remembered floating over her body. Norma thought she could have been dreaming about all kinds of things in those months when she was unconscious.

    But the woman told them she had obsessive-compulsive disorder and had a habit of memorizing numbers. While she was floating above her body, she had read the serial number on top of the respirator machine. And she remembered it. Norma looked at the machine. It was big and clunky, and this one stood about seven feet high. There was no way to see on top of the machine without a stepladder.

    “Okay, what’s the number?” Another nurse took out a piece of paper to jot it down. The woman rattled off twelve digits.

    A few days later, the nurses called maintenance to take the ventilator machine out of the room. The woman had recovered so well, she no longer needed it. When the worker arrived, the nurses asked if he wouldn’t mind climbing to the top to see if there was a serial number up there. He gave them a puzzled look and grabbed his ladder. When he made it up there, he told them that indeed there was a serial number.

    The nurses looked at each other. Could he read it to them? Norma watched him brush off a layer of dust to get a better look. He read the number. It was twelve digits long: the exact number that the woman had recited.

    The professor would later come to find out that her patient’s story was not unique. One of Norma’s colleagues at the University of Virginia Medical Center at the time, Dr. Raymond Moody, had published a book in 1975 called Life After Life, for which he had conducted the first large-scale study of people who had been declared clinically dead and been revived, interviewing 150 people from across the country. Some had been gone for as long as twenty minutes with no brain waves or pulse.

    In her lectures, Norma sometimes shared pieces of his research with her own students. Since Moody had begun looking into the near-death experiences, researchers from around the world had collected data on thousands and thousands of people who had gone through them—children, the blind, and people of all belief systems and cultures—publishing the findings in medical and research journals and books. Still, no one has been able to definitively account for the common experience all of Moody’s interviewees described.

    The inevitable question always followed: Is there life after death?

    Everyone had to answer that question based on his or her own beliefs, the professor said. For some of her students, that absence of scientific evidence of an afterlife did little to change their feelings about their faith. For others, it put that much more pressure on this life.

    In the cemetery that evening, the sky had turned the color of slate. Some of the students were sitting on a curb listening to the lecture with outstretched legs, their feet clad in flip-flops and sneakers. Others leaned against cars. One young man wore his fraternity letters. A couple of young ladies were dressed in business attire: white collared shirts, slacks, and high heels. No one could have known it that day, but a year from now one of those students—the short-haired woman in glasses, holding her spiral notebook, with a beige cardigan over her Kean University T-shirt—would be dead herself, a victim of a house fire that started after she had fallen asleep without putting out her cigarette.

    Norma dismissed her students. They climbed into cars and SUVs, filing out minutes before total darkness fell.

    MOST PEOPLE SAY they do not fear death or barely think about it at all, according to Gallup polls. But Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, argued that we’re kidding ourselves; fear of death makes us want to engage in activities that render us unique, allowing us to reach a level of putative immortality. Death anxiety, Becker believes, is the powerful undercurrent stirring human behavior.

    “What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal?” he wrote. “The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such a complex and fancy worm food?”

    But if death is terrifying to most people, Norma knew that her job was to impart the more useful lesson about it: how to live a good life while always under the sharp tip of mortality. The narratives behind the bodies on the autopsy field trips to coroners’ offices on which she took her students told those truths. Like the seventy-three-year-old splayed on a metal table one morning, his face peeled from his skull, his forehead folded in a flap over his chin. The medical examiner’s report noted that he had hung himself in his garage. His wife had recently died, and it seemed that he could not bear to live on without her.

    Displays of life’s daily horrors, usually hidden from the public’s view, ended up naked and spliced open by blue-gloved technicians, right before her students’ eyes. There was the married thirty-year-old father of three, his mouth open, his arms rigid and cocked. He had been shot in the head. Someone had found him at 9:41 the night before; his belongings had ended up spread across a white sheet on the medical examiner’s floor: a tangerine-and-red flame-colored T-shirt and sneakers that matched, a blood-soaked white undershirt, four packs of Newport cigarettes, a few dozen MetroCards for the New York City subway, $211 in cash.

    And there was the boy who must have been about twelve. He had apparently hung himself in a basement with a dog leash. Norma just could not let that one go. After watching his autopsy on one field trip, she hunted down the information as to where the child’s funeral was being held and decided to attend.

    There was no denying it: life’s edges brimmed with misery and cruelty. No wonder people often concluded that the dead were better off. In our youth, we looked forward to our futures, like “children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin,” the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote. “It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.”

    By the time many of Norma’s students came to her, they were already exhausted and confused about life and looking to find out how not to carry it out like a sentence.

    In 1985, two researchers from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette embarked on what would become a twenty-year study to solve this question: what kind of students take death education courses in college, and why?

    Sarah Brabant and Deann Kalich surveyed more than nine hundred students enrolled in Brabant’s Sociology of Death and Dying course and found that nearly 24 percent wanted to deal with their own grief issues; but, most startlingly, close to half of the students surveyed had “seriously contemplated committing suicide at some time in their lives.” Even more distressing, 10 percent of the students said they had actually tried to kill themselves at one point.

    Norma saw all of this in sentences sprinkled through her students’ essays. Like this one from a student who had been homeless: “I used to pray every day until one day I lost hope and it felt like it was pointless.” Or this one: “After I was raped I wanted to curl up in a ball and die.”

    The professor referred students to the college counseling center on a regular basis. They called her in the middle of the night, in the early morning, during class, during lunch; they sent urgent text messages, knocked on her office door in tears, broke down sobbing with her in hallways. She kept a school mental health counselor’s phone number in her cell phone. But some students simply threw it away when Norma jotted it down for them. They didn’t want to talk to a stranger. They only wanted to talk to her.

    So Norma’s message was that happiness takes hard work. It should be approached like a series of homework assignments. She kept a small book in her office, A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen, which she often quoted to students from memory. This was one of her favorite lines: “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.” Quindlen went on, “We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.”

    Living a long life didn’t come with any promises that it would be a happy one either. Norma learned this lesson on her own when she was a twenty-something nurse in Virginia. On home visiting duty, she met a 110-year-old woman living alone in a trailer in the woods. Mary Manly was her name. Her only son had died in his eighties, and all she had left was a little black mutt with a gray chin that seemed as old as his owner, hobbling around on his little legs. Mary had a wound on her leg, and Norma stopped by to tend to it every few days.

    One day, she treated the wound with a wet-to-dry sterile dressing, chatting with Mary. As she was leaving the trailer, Norma looked back over her shoulder. Through a window, she watched Mary grab a bag of cornmeal, rip off the dressing, and stuff the ground dried maize into her wound.

    Norma went back later and confronted her. “Look, Mary, I saw the cornmeal. What was that about?”

    Mary looked at her. “I don’t like the feel of the wetness!” she snapped. “I want it to be dry.”

    “Okay, but you can tell me that,” she said. “Cornmeal is going to make it stay like a wound. It’s not going to heal.”

    Mary turned quiet, looking embarrassed.

    In that moment, Norma realized that Mary did not want the wound to heal. She had no family left, no friends, and no other visitors to speak of. She must have looked forward to the dressings. It was the only time she had face-to-face conversation in days.

    Norma called up the local church to tell them about the 110-year-old woman in a trailer, suggesting that maybe they could bring her a pie once in a while. She also continued to visit Mary regularly, even if not summoned.

    Still today, on a wall in her office, she kept a black-and-white framed photo of her younger self, kneeling next to Mary. From her patient, Norma had learned that the deepest wounds can never be healed with ointment and gauze. It was a lesson more valuable than anything found in a textbook or dissertation.

    She always held on to that tenderness she had for the elderly like Mary, those forgotten and overlooked. It was the same kind she felt for forlorn strangers, her students, and her own children. They needed her. And she didn’t mind being needed.

    So when it came to defining her Death in Perspective class, the professor developed the habit of handing out a poem by Khalil Gibran called “On Death” at the end of every semester. Part of it went like this:

    Then Almitra spoke, saying, “We would ask now of Death.”

    And he said: You would know the secret of death.

    But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

  • Table of Contents

    Prologue: The Good-bye Letter xi

    Part I Death's Secrets

    1 The Professor 5

    2 Life Stories of Norma Lynn 18

    3 Rewind Button 37

    4 Little Boy 50

    5 Strange Behavior 60

    6 To the Rescue 78

    7 The Trigger 97

    8 Despair 107

    9 Brothers 131

    Part II Life Lessons

    10 Reclamations 147

    11 Jonathan 162

    12 Caitlin 166

    13 To Serve 170

    14 Roadblocks 177

    15 Parting Ways 185

    16 Epiphanies 190

    Part III Final Exam

    17 Road Trip 197

    18 The Rhizome 204

    19 Life Cycles 215

    20 Birthday 219

    Epilogue 225

    A Note About This Book 229

    Acknowledgments 231

    Appendix: Erikson's Stage Theory 234

    Sources and Notes 236

    Selected Bibliography and Suggested Readings 249

    Index 254

    Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Death Class includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with Dr. Norma Bowe, who teaches the class. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Each year, Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers an exclusive course called Death in Perspective, designed “to develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death, and bereavement.” Led by Professor Norma Bowe, “The Death Class” is the most popular on campus. But what Dr. Bowe does in the classroom goes way beyond making students confront the mechanics of death. Attracting students whose lives are haunted by death, the real purpose of the death class, and the goal of Dr. Bowe, is quietly rescuing students from tragedy. From an Obsessive Compulsive young woman who has devoted her life to saving her drug-addicted mother, to a young man who watched his father kill his mother, to a former gang member who turns his entire life into a community service project, Norma Bowe’s students learn over time her most important lesson, one it took her years to learn and accept—that you can’t give to others if you have not first healed yourself.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life.” Why do you think the author chose to use this Mary Oliver quotation to open The Death Class? What resonance does it have with the book’s themes?

    2. Caitlin, Jonathan, Israel, and indeed Dr. Bowe herself all spend much of their time and energy helping others in their community, and far beyond it. What influence does the Death in Perspective class have on their volunteer or community service efforts? Alternatively, what draws people already interested in these things to Death in Perspective?

    3. The popularity of Death in Perspective at Kean is one of the things that drew the author to Dr. Bowe in the first place. Having read the book, what do you think it is about the class that makes it so popular? Would it be as popular if someone other than Dr. Bowe taught it?

    4. If you were a student at Kean, do you think you would be likely to try and sign up for Death in Perspective, if you knew only a little about Dr. Bowe and her work? Why, or why not?

    5. In many ways, Dr. Bowe is a very atypical professor: her closeness with her students, her teaching methods, and the very nature of her class are very unlike most college professors. What do you think is more (or less) effective about her style of teaching? Do you think more professors should be like Dr. Bowe?

    6. Most, if not all, of Dr. Bowe’s students have traumatic and difficult pasts, and most are still dealing with those traumas. How do you think their traumatic events have affected their perspectives on death? What are some of the similarities between the way Dr. Bowe, Caitlin, Jonathan, and Israel think of death? What are some of the differences, and where do these differences come from?

    7. Caitlin, Jonathan, and Israel are all from hugely different backgrounds, dealing with very different issues. Whose story did you feel closest to as you read The Death Class? Why? If you had the opportunity to meet one of them, whom would you choose?

    8. On page 85, the author writes, “Adulthood, Norma believed, is about giving back and passing lessons on to the next generation, so that the virtues you work so hard to develop live on even after your death.” Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? Why do you think this is so important to Dr. Bowe?

    9. Jonathan and Caitlin’s relationship goes through a number of phases as they get together, break up, and get back together over the course of the book. What lessons do they learn? What was preventing them from working as a couple? How are the lessons of their relationship applicable to other relationships, romantic or not?

    10. Much of The Death Class is structured around Erik Erikson’s stages of life (you can find a chart of these stages in the appendix). What do you make of Erikson’s theory? Do you agree or disagree with it? Why or why not? Why do you think it has such a crucial role for Dr. Bowe?

    11. In Chapter 19, the author revisits the family of her friend Sangeeta, whose murder she recounts early on in the book. How does the story of Sangeeta’s family, and their recovery from her murder, reflect the lessons of Death in Perspective? How has the author’s encounter with Dr. Bowe changed her view on Sangeeta’s death?

    12. In the last chapter of The Death Class, Dr. Bowe allows the author to join her on her birthday trip, which she traditionally spends alone. Why do you think Dr. Bowe finally allows someone to join her for her birthday? What significance does this have for Dr. Bowe, for the author, and for The Death Class as a story?

    13. On page 170, the author quotes Erikson on teaching: “…man needs to teach…because facts are kept alive by being told, logic by being demonstrated, truth by being professed.” Do you agree with this perspective on facts and truth? How might this affect Dr. Bowe’s perspective on teaching? What truths does she keep alive by professing?

    14. The Death Class does an excellent job balancing different perspectives on the concept of death—from the physical and medical to the social, psychological, and personal. Discuss what you learned about death from reading this book. Do you think differently about death and dying after reading The Death Class?

    15. One of the virtues of Dr. Bowe’s class, and of The Death Class itself, is how it escapes being pessimistic and morbid. How do you think Dr. Bowe and her students, so focused on death, loss, and trauma, can end up being so positive and outwardly generous? Do you see a paradox in thinking so much about death and still being optimistic and focused on life? Does it take a particular kind of person to have this outlook, or is it just a certain kind of attitude?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Many of the chapters in The Death Class end with a writing assignment. Choose one of the writing assignments that speaks to you and complete it before your group meets. Share your responses with the group and discuss your process: Why did you choose the assignment you did? What did you learn, or what surprised you, in the process of writing your response?

    2. Death in Perspective takes much of its shape as a class from field trips to would-be surprising or unusual places for any other class—such as graveyards, mortuaries and prisons. Plan a field trip for your group based on one of the field trips from The Death Class, or plan to have your discussion in the location of your field trip.

    3. One of the themes that emerges from The Death Class is the importance of giving back to your community, and how helping others can be a crucial component of understanding and valuing your own life. Research how you can best help your community and volunteer at a local women’s shelter, soup kitchen, or nursing home.

    A Conversation with Dr. Norma Bowe
    *Interview conducted by Cleo Tobbi

    1. What was it like having someone write a book about you and your class? Did it change your perspective on your teaching and community service work? Did you surprise yourself with how much access you allowed Erika Hayasaki?

    I was excited to have someone write about the class, a little less excited to have someone writing my life story because I’m a pretty private person. But I feel like Erika captured the essence of the class and also did a great job describing me and my life, and how it intercepted with many of my students’ lives and their stories. When you think about it, I’m asking people all the time to talk about their life stories and how they relate to their lives speaking about death and loss and grief.

    2. What was the very first class of Death in Perspective like? Was it successful? Are you still in touch with any of the students from your first time teaching it?

    It’s been thirteen years, but I’m still in contact with many of those students who were in the very first Death in Perspective class. I have one student whose father died because he waited three years on the liver transplant list and never received a liver. I had another woman who was older, in her seventies, and so she was able to give an incredible perspective on living your life to the fullest. I was developing the course as I was teaching it. I wanted to be a little didactic, and then I knew I wanted to do some interpersonal work, as well as experiential work. From there I kept fine tuning…I’m always changing and adding. Each time I have a new class it’s a room full of new stories. It’s a different group of people dealing with loss and grief. Even when I run two classes in the same semester, each section is different. And sometimes, they even get different assignments depending on the dynamic of the class.

    3. How do you think your background in medicine has helped you as a teacher?

    I think having a medical background and teaching this particular topic is really useful because I’m able to talk about the anatomy and physiology of the body, and I’ve been with so many patients who’ve died. I have a lot of critical stories that I can tell.

    4. What would you say is the easiest or most pleasurable part about teaching Death in Perspective? What is the most difficult?

    The best part of this class is the personal relationships that I can make with the students. I feel like I’ve had a peek into all of their lives so when I’m sitting in the classroom, I know which person’s life story is going to connect to another’s. The most difficult part of this class is that it’s draining: I’ve had students who have attempted suicide. I have students who are depressed. I do a lot of hands-on work and I see a lot of students even outside of the classroom, so it can be exhausting.

    5. What do you think it is that draws people to your class? How do you explain its consistent popularity and resonance with people? What do you see as the common thread in your students?

    Death is something that we are all going to experience in our lives. I ask my students on the very first day of class, “Who knows someone who’s attempted suicide?” Three-quarters of the room raise their hands. “How many people know someone who’s committed suicide?” Three-quarters of the class raise their hands. “How many people know someone who’s been murdered?” I would say maybe five out of twenty-five people don’t have their hands raised. We’re dealing with a lot of urban violence and issues that maybe other populations across the country don’t face. A lot of my students were raised by grandparents. They’ve had absent mothers or fathers. And many have fathers who have been incarcerated so there’s loss already in their lives. In their senior year as they’re about to be launched into the world, a lot of them yearn for that sort of introspective kind of experience like, “Who am I?” “How am I going to be in the world?” “What do I do with this loss that I’ve already had?”

    6. Do you think there’s something about the concepts that you teach in your class that turns so many people on to volunteer and community service work? Or is it more the exposure you provide to struggling communities and individuals?

    Be The Change is the community service group that grew out of Death in Perspective. It all started when we were on a field trip to one of the hospice centers and one of the students in the class suggested that we go do some painting and cleaning up. We turned three rooms there into a craft room, a sitting room, and a dining room for the patients. Once we did this, there was no stopping the students. A lot of them have joined Be The Change. We feed the homeless every week and when something happens, the students are all over me. When Sandy hit here in New Jersey, three days after the storm we were at the shore helping people get the stuff out of their basements. It’s really driven by the interests of the volunteers. Once we get the projects set up—we do several projects a week at this point now—people can volunteer for them and we post them up on the Facebook page. I think there’s something really healing, when you’re grieving, about giving back or at least experiencing people who may have it even harder than you do.

    7. What misconception about death do you encounter most often? If you could change one thing in the way the people think about dying, what would it be?

    That’s easy. The biggest misconception is that death is scary. People are afraid of death; they are afraid of the death process; they’re afraid of anything to do with death. And I think through the field trips—like going to the funeral home and getting inside a casket if you want to, going on a cemetery scavenger hunt, going to a hospice and looking into the eyes of people who have six months or less to live—the death process gets demystified. We also watch a whole autopsy and you can get really close to the body if you want to and actually peer into the organs and all the bodily systems. We think we’re invincible and this helps people understand that we’re fragile. A violent death is pretty terrifying, but a natural death, like what most of us will have, will be very peaceful. People avoid death. They might have a grandparent who’s dying and they’re afraid to go to the hospital so they miss out on saying goodbye. They are afraid to talk to a dying person and they’re afraid when someone gets killed—they don’t want to know anything about it. You carry these missed opportunities with you the rest of your life. Some people even avoid funerals, but these are important ceremonies to finish saying good-bye to someone.

    8. Since you’ve been teaching Death in Perspective, how has your own thinking on death and dying evolved? What have you learned from your students?

    I don’t think it’s changed the way I think about death and dying, but I have learned that no matter how old you are, you can face obstacles with grace and beauty and courage. I’ve learned that no matter how bad things get for people, that there’s a lot of resilience. I have seen my students struggle with things that are unthinkable. I’ll give you an example. Two semesters ago, I had a student whose father picked her up from work three years ago and told her to go upstairs because he and her mom were going to have a discussion in the kitchen. This poor girl and her boyfriend were having a fight so she was happy to stay upstairs to text him. All of a sudden, she heard a gunshot. She ran downstairs in time to see her mother fall to the ground and her dad take the gun to his own head right in front of her. Within two minutes, that girl was an orphan, an only child. Yet, now she’s a biotechnology major, which is one of the hardest majors at our school; she’s doing research right now in Costa Rica with a professor, and she’s going to graduate. So even with the most unthinkable things in your history there is a way to put one foot in front of the other. It’s really unbelievable to watch.

    9. How do you keep up the emotional energy it must take to be such a mentor figure to so many students, year after year, class after class?

    I don’t know because today I’m pretty exhausted! It’s a challenge sometimes. If I feel like a student is having an issue that’s going to need some intensive work, I always refer them to the counseling center at our school. I always make sure that they have a referral if they need one. But I have to tell you, watching the students come out of bad situations or grow and evolve gives me energy. I get invited to weddings and baby showers. I get to write all the graduate school recommendation letters and see people go on to graduate school or work in their field. It’s so encouraging to see people go on with their lives and do really well. It’s just amazing.

    10. Erikson’s concept of generativity is such a powerful idea—when and how did you first encounter it? How would you characterize the influence it has had on your life?

    I first encountered it when I was in college studying nursing. I’ve used it as a theoretical model for the work that we do in class. Part of Erikson’s model is that we grow and change throughout our lifetime. We can blow past mistakes, pick up our lives, and move on. I’ve even seen that in the work I’ve done in the prisons. No matter what the situation, you can pick up the pieces and go on. And “generativity,” specifically, is about giving back to the next generation. So it’s about being productive; it’s about imparting wisdom; it’s about doing good deeds; it’s about a kind of karma almost and I think that’s really what life’s about—finding meaning in adversity and then doing something about your problems. I believe that life starts with trust and ends with integrity and generativity. I feel like I’m firmly in that stage in life. I’m a mother of two wonderful daughters and I feel like I have a million children at the school. I feel like I’m giving back all the time and imparting wisdom that I know. I know that what I’ve told students about death really helps them. It has gotten me to think of the stages of life and the different milestones that we’re supposed to be able to accomplish at different times in our life. If we haven’t done those things, like learn how to trust, learn how to be independent, learn how to play, learn how to give back, you know, we’re not going to have a good death. We’re going to have a lot of unfinished business. So every time I teach that model, it kind of reminds me of where I’m at in my own life and where I’m going to need to be in order to have a death that’s going to be peaceful and gentle and easier. I don’t want to be holding on to a lot of stuff at the end of my life. I want to be surrounded by loved ones. In order to do that, you need to foster all of those relationships all the way through your lifespan.

    11. How has your Be The Change organization been going recently? What project is your team working on next?

    Erika was around for the Isaiah Teen Homeless Shelter project. We completely redid a teen homeless shelter in a very urban, dangerous area in East Orange, New Jersey. Since that time, we have mentored the girls in that program and now I have twelve homeless students here at Kean University from that program. We continue to do work all over the country. We’ve been to Joplin, we’ve been to Tuscaloosa, Alabama; we helped the fisherman in Mississippi after the BP oil spill; we’ve done Katrina relief; and then most recently, right here in Newark, which isn’t far from our campus, we’ve been doing garden projects where we take abandoned lots and turn them into beautiful gardens for the community. We made an outdoor classroom for one neighborhood because they had two schools nearby and we made a playground for another community because it is very dangerous and there’s no place for kids to play. Anytime something happens, the students are on it. Like the Oklahoma tornado, where we partnered up with the Covenant House to send $20,000 in gift cards to victims in Oklahoma. Now with the fires that happened in Prescott, Arizona, we’re collecting stuff for them.

    12. Do you have anything new on the horizon personally? Any new projects, classes, or goals?

    I’m writing a book right now that will be a compilation of student work. It’s going to be a workbook for the death class. People can buy it and do their own death class. People will get to read what some of the students have written and I’m also going to have sections with assignments so that readers can do the assignments themselves. I’m still teaching constantly and Be The Change is turning into a nonprofit, so I’m training people on running the organization.

    13. Is there anything else you would like to add?

    You know, when Erika first called me, I wasn’t really interested in talking to a journalist. I basically told her that she needed to send me something that she had written before I would meet with her. She sent me the Virginia Tech article that she had written and I knew right away that she was the right person to write an article about the class. It was because of the way she wrote that article—she didn’t approach it from the point of the view of the shooter like everyone else did. She literally walked us through room 211 in Norris Hall, where most of the carnage happened, and she described, in such detail, each person who was in that classroom. And she is such an incredibly talented writer and I feel very grateful that she decided to take on this project. I think she’s done a beautiful job with the class and my students and me.

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