At the beginning of each semester at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, students are registering in droves for one of their school’s most popular courses. The Death Class: A Story About Life, a new book by journalist and Atlantic contributor Erika Hayasaki, takes an inside look at the class—“Death in Perspective,” taught by Dr. Norma Bowe—that has drawn such a large waiting list that students may wait up to three years for a seat. Currently an assistant professor in the Literary Journalism Department at the University of California, Irvine, Hayasaki has written about death for years, starting in college when she began writing obits for a local paper in Illinois, and later becoming a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Since then, she’s written about death from many angles, on both a large and a small scale, exploring how we remember ones we’ve lost. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
What was your experience like writing about death—including homicides, suicides, mass shootings—for the Los Angeles Times?
You’re covering such intense stories, and you’re thrown into it right away. You cover drive-by shootings, and not just from afar. You’re going to the house and interviewing family members of the dead kid. It put me in the middle of the scene. It was a major metropolitan newspaper, where every week there was some different death-related story, from train crashes from shootings to you-name-it. September 11th happened the year I was hired at the Los Angeles Times. I was reporting in L.A., but I called families whose loved ones had been on the flights. I spoke to a family who was waiting for grandparents to arrive, and never came. That was just part of my daily life. That was my introduction.
Did you have any formal training on how to write about death?
Never. But now, I teach some of the lessons I learned about death from Dr. Norma Bowe in my journalism class. I once took students to a program on campus where people donate their bodies to medical science. They interviewed the guy who runs it, who used to be a funeral home embalmer. They had dead bodies lying out that had just come in and were getting to prep them. I had the students observe and write about it. My students also went to visit local hospice centers to interview people who were actually dying. Some of the hospice patients actually died while my students were writing the stories. It was an intense situation, but it was reality. We talk a lot about those moments and how to write about them in a sensitive way and how to deal with it. I don’t think most journalism schools spend an entire class on how to deal with death.
You’ve written about mass tragedies like 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings. When did you start to realize that this kind of reporting was taking a toll on you?
When you’re reporting, you’re just living in the moment. You do what you have to do. And, personally, there’s a separation. Virginia Tech happens and you jump on a plane and go. You think about everything after. Around that time period, my stress levels were really high. The stress of what’s going to happen to newspapers in the future, jumping on planes every week, and the magnitude of the events I was covering. I had plane-crash nightmares weekly. I had a fear of flying even though I flew all the time. Every time something happened on the news I had to make sure it wasn’t happening near somebody I loved.
The thing about being a journalist is that you see these things all the time, and you realize there’s no reason it couldn’t happen to you or your family. I had no way to deal with that. In Newark, New Jersey, I covered the funerals of three kids who had been executed in a schoolyard. Lined up and shot in the back of the head. I went to each of their funerals in one day. One, after another, after another. I don’t know how reporters deal with it. But it was taking a toll on me in terms of stress, anxiety, and death anxiety. I didn’t have an outlet. I tried yoga, but that didn’t work. I tried therapy for a little bit, but nothing was really working to sort out all of these emotions.
You wrote a feature story for the Los Angeles Times on Dr. Norma Bowe’s “Death in Perspective” course, and then ended up shadowing her to write this book. What was it about Dr. Bowe that was so compelling?
Norma is highly loved, first of all. Her students adore her, which you don’t see all the time with professors. She went above and beyond. It wasn’t just in the classroom; she was available at all hours. She doesn’t really turn off. And she didn’t just lecture, she had a way of engaging. She would make the class discussions into lessons. She drew from her medical expertise or her nursing experience, or working with psych patients. This was not a class where you would just sit and listen to a teacher—you went into the field. And for me, as a reporter, being out in the field is a big deal. Those are the stories I like to write.
Did you participate?
For my first story, I was just observing. But when I decided to stick with it, I became part of the class. I did all of the assignments, I participated in discussions, I went on the field trips. The students all knew I was a journalist, but they also knew that I was part of the class.
What kind of exercises did you do in the class?
On the first day of class, Norma asks students to write a goodbye letter to someone or something they’ve lost. I wrote mine to my friend Sangeeta, who was killed when we were in high school. I hadn’t revisited that, in that way, since it happened. I hadn’t thought about how it might’ve affected my reporting later, on such intense events, or even my devotion to reporting those events. The stories that I am always drawn to, about death, are stories that I go out and pursue. What was driving me to pursue these stories? I never thought about that. I went to Virginia Tech, but I stayed for several weeks because I wanted to get inside the minds of some of the students who were there. When a lot of the media had left, I was still there. Why did I do that? Was it just for a good story? I don’t think so. I think there was something more driving it. I hadn’t put that together until I took the class and started exploring.
I did the goodbye letter, and got choked up in front of the class reading it. I went through the emotions and experiences like everyone else. That made all the difference. I couldn’t sit back and be a fly on the wall–I had to force myself to be emotional. That was very different for me, but it was good for me.