Review

The Death Class: A True Story About Life

by Erika Hayasaki

Dr. Norma Bowe's class, Death in Perspective, has a three-year waiting list at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. Who would think that a course about death and dying would be a popular elective? Norma takes her students on field trips to a hospice, a prison, the morgue and the cemetery. Classes are sometimes held in the cemetery because she thinks "cemeteries held the stories that history books could not always document; they were the overlooked, underused classrooms beneath our feet..."

As a former nurse, Norma had often seen death up close and personal. When she clinically describes the signs of impending death, it does not distress her students, who are young and full of questions about the meaning of life and death. Some enroll in her class because they have grief issues, while others struggle to make sense of violent death, suicide attempts, drug abuse, and other weighty matters experienced by family members and heavily impacting the young students.

"Erika Hayasaki has beautifully distilled her hands-on research, giving readers much useful information to digest while sharing important life lessons."

Erika Hayasaki, a journalist who covered the mass murder at Virginia Tech in 2007, had been trying unsuccessfully for years to figure out death's "mercilessness and meaning." She interviewed Norma, who agreed to let Hayasaki shadow her for research purposes. As a condition, though, the author had to participate fully in the class.  

Students seek out the popular professor when they're troubled, and she quite willingly spends her free time counseling and assisting them. Because Norma had grown up unwanted by a drug-addicted mother and a father with Mafia ties, she was handed off to a kindly grandmother to raise. When others ran from chaos and dysfunctional behavior, Norma ran toward it to assist the distressed people whenever she could. Her students sensed that she could be an oasis of comfort and compassion in an often bewildering world.

As part of their assignments, students have to write their own eulogy, a good-bye letter to someone who has died, and an essay about what they would change if they had a rewind button. She makes them think about unpleasant topics and challenges them to overcome problems they face. Norma understands, through experience, that certain skills are needed in learning how to survive, and she teaches by example and encouragement.

Norma's mantra could be summed up succinctly: help others. She unfailingly walks her talk, and her students follow her example. They establish a successful community project called “Be the Change,” learning how to cooperate and work together to make things happen.

Some students' personal stories are not easy to read, especially if you prefer not to read about drug abuse, suicide attempts, mental illness and violence. But these very stories needed to be included. This is, after all, a book about keeping death in perspective by learning how to live a decent, worthwhile life and overcome obstacles. Erika Hayasaki has beautifully distilled her hands-on research, giving readers much useful information to digest while sharing important life lessons.

Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 17, 2014

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