Lively Interest in ‘Death Class’

Norma Bowe, a professor at Kean University, has taught "Death in Perspective" for 14 years.

Photo Courtesy of IStockPhoto

At first glance, Norma Bowe’s “Death in Perspective” seems like any other college course. But a typical college course doesn’t boast a three-year waiting list. Bowe, a nurse by background with a PhD. in community health policy, took over the Kean University course 14 years ago. Since then, the class has exploded in popularity. Sign-up for the current semester’s course opened at midnight on registration day; the class was filled by 1:30 am.

Perhaps it’s the field trips. During the semester, students venture to a cemetery and a funeral home and even witness an autopsy. But it’s not just morbid curiosity that catches the students’ attention. The coursework includes a journal as a way for students to work through their own grief or personal crises—everything from the loss of a parent to body-image issues.

“We’ve been very carefully taught as a society to get over our grief pretty quickly,” says Bowe, a South Plainfield native who now resides in Highland Park. But, she says, it shouldn’t be that easy. “People carry [grief] around like a ton of bricks. I think people are hungry to address issues and lay down some of these bricks.”

Bowe is the subject of Los Angeles Times reporter Erika Hayasaki’s new book, The Death Class. Hayasaki documented the journeys of Bowe and four of her students over the course of four years as they navigated life-and- death issues.

“Before the class I think they’re very reticent to talk about death,” says Bowe. “After the class, they’ve been kind of transformed into pretty compassionate adults. They will talk about grief, they will help their parents when a grandparent or family member dies. They’re not afraid to teach others about what they’ve learned.”

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