Book Review: “The Death Class” by Erika Hayasaki (Simon & Schuster, January 2014)

It’s not that I “couldn’t put the book down,” I had to put it down. This is in no way a thumbs-down review for this courageous and revealing book, but rather a reflection on my own sensitivity to emotionally upsetting material. (I could not bear to watch the movie Sophie’s Choice for example, about a Nazi who made a mother choose which of her two children he would kill.) Erika Hayasaki observed a college death-awareness class, one of thousands now given across the country. Dr. Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who was the instructor, only agreed to let Erika write about her “Death in Perspective” class if she became a student. Students did things like keep journals and go on field trips to places like cemeteries and hospices. Speaking of cemeteries, Hayasaki, as she often does, uses felicitous phrasing, saying that cemeteries are “the overlooked, underused classrooms beneath our feet.”

A journalist, Erika Hayasaki yearned to “try to explain and interpret the world and its stories. But death’s mercilessness and meaning, I could not figure out.” Her first story as a budding journalist was a detailed obituary in her high school newspaper about the violent death of one of her best friends. This gave her something in common with many of the students in Dr. Bowe’s class. Like her, many of these students had witnessed or been the objects of abuse and violence. Moreover, Hayasaki informs us that about 25% of students in death education classes are there to deal with bereavement, and a full half of the students have had suicidal thoughts, with 10% having attempted to translate these thoughts into action. Most of the book is about these students’ personal lives.

My blog readers may wonder why I, who can sit with people facing the end and handle all their questions, and who can write about issues like pulling the plug, found the book so upsetting. Naturally I am all for death education classes and I have attended Death Café meetings and indeed wrote a book of anecdotes about my hospice patients. As much as my heart aches for the suffering of the author, the class instructor and the students, and as much as I deeply admire how Dr. Bowe gave hope and meaning to her students, I could not take the relentless detail page after page of the abuse and violence they suffered. For me, exposure to this causes me suffering secondhand. Possibly I am more sensitive to this than most readers, due to my own emotional deprivations in my past, and so the average reader may find “The Death Class” gripping and redemptive. Assuredly it adroitly takes the reader “right there” into the lives of the students, instructor and author.

Reading this book made me think about how Hayasaki and I serve the death awareness movement differently. Someone told me that my approach to this subject is “soft and gentle.” I think that sums up my angle: some people are extremely ambivalent about touching this topic at all, and so I write about more run-of-the-mill people and situations. I talk of such people as they live in the moment with death serving as a blurred backdrop. Hayasaki talks of people who have had to deal with death as a constant theme, and who have had to work so much harder to get their fair share of feeling alive.

Discovering how Dr. Bowe was the catalyst for such affirmation of life is one of the chief values of The Death Class. If you are curious about how people can surmount the most extreme circumstances to find fulfillment, you will want to read this book.


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