Each year, Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers an exclusive class called Death in Perspective. Led by Professor Norma Bowe, the objective of the class is to “develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death, and bereavement.” Surprisingly popular among these young adults, the class has had a three-year waiting list.
Award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki spent three years taking this class, shadowing Dr. Bowe, and meeting with over 50 of her students. In The Death Class: A True Story about Life (Simon & Schuster; January 14, 2014; $25.00), Hayasaki portrays this extraordinary professor who teaches the popular course and plunges deep into the off-campus hours of her most vulnerable students to show them how to live.
Hayasaki writes, “There was no denying it: life’s edges brimmed with misery and cruelty. No wonder people often concluded that the dead were better off…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” (page 14). Dr. Bowe, a nurse by training with PhD in Public Health, started this curriculum over a decade ago. “This is a health class,” she tells students on the first day, “but it’s not like any kind of health class that you’ve ever had before. It’s probably not like any class you’ve had before on any subject” (page xx). “Most of you are here for a reason,” she says. “We’re really the beginning of a bereavement group” (page xxi).