The Death Class: A True Story About Life

August’s book of the month was a narrative non-fiction written by a journalist, Erika Hayasaki. Registered Nurse, Dr. Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a New Jersey college. This class ended up having a three year waiting list. WHY?

Norma’s “death class” continues to be a popular course at Kean University in New Jersey. She continues to be the professor and nurse that inspires young adults to this day. Norma did not just teach this class to her students, she immersed them into it-taking them on field trips to creamtoriums, morgues, cemetaries, hospice centers, prisons and more. She helped them to not fear death and, more importantly, appreciate life. She still keeps in touch with many students, sharing their stories with others and teaching life lessons many are too scared to talk about. as the author puts it, Norma is truly a “professor of death.”

Why do people avoid talking about death? “Death Anxiety” is actually very common among individuals of all ages. It greatly affects how we live our lives-our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Yet, there is a stigma surrounding it. The prologue of this book discusses the history of talking openly about death.

“For much of the early twentieth century, talking openly and honestly about death was considered poor taste-especially inside classrooms. But by the 1960s, some scholars had come to beleive that death education was as important as sex education if not more important-since not everyone had sex.”

The first college course on death was taught at the University of Minnesota in 1963. Soon the idea of teaching about death became known as “thanatology.” By 1971, more than six hundred courses were being taught about death across the U.S. and five years later that number nearly doubled. Much more resources have since emerged as well. And there are other topics that are discussed regarding death today, especially within the health care field- such as greiving.

I could go on to discuss the topics of “death anxiety” and “greiving” but what I really want to discuss is the lives Norma has touched. Like Israel, the former gang member who turned his life around and learned to express himself within the class. Norma used textbooks and novels within her cirriculuum, but what really made this class unique were her assignments and discussions she held with her students.

The book actually does include assignments and discussions from her class. How cool?! I CHALLENGE YOU, and myself, to read the assignments below and try to complete at least one…or all of them! I have listed most, but not all, included in the book.

  1. THE GOODBYE LETTER: Write a goodbye letter to someone you lost.
  1. THE FIRE STORY: Write about a time you walked through fire- your life’s hardest moment-and how you came out of that experience alive. Who was there for you? How did you get through it? How did it change you?
  1. THE REWIND BUTTON: If you had a rewind button for your life, what would you go back and change?
  1. LETTER TO YOUNGER SELF: If you could speak to yourself as a child, what would you say? What advice woud you give?
  1. DISCUSSION: If you could forever eliminate one disease from this planet which would you chose and why?
  1. EULOGY: Write your own eulogy. Another assignment similar to this was to write your own living will.
  1. BE A GHOST: For two hours, become a ghost. Do not talk. Do not answer any calls or have ny conversations. Just listen, py attention, and be present. Write about the experience.
  1. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER WE DIE: What religious or spiritual practice do you believe in, if any, and h ow does it impact your bliefs about what happens when we die?
  1. OTHER QUETIONS: What do you think the purpose of death education? How do the stories of who we are survive our death?
  1.  BUCKET LIST: If you had a year left to live, what would you want to do before you died? Compile your bucket list.

*also noted in this book are some of the books that Norma Bowe included in her syllabus for students to read. Here are two: “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom & “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean Dominique Bauby.

Don’t forget to check out Be The Change!

Dr. Norma Bowe is also the director and board chair of “Be The Change NJ”. This community service and activist group was started eleven years ago. Named after Ghandi’s famous quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

BE THE CHANGE NJ is a non profit dedicated to community service and activism projects that help promote peace and non violence in urban neighborhoods. It is completely volunteer and every penny goes to the community. Activities include: homelessness relief, creating peace gardens, from abandoned lots, creating safe spaces for youth and more! They are a Certified Emergency Response Team and deploy and assist in disasters. 

To find out more about this cause you can visit their website:

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