The College Course That's All About Death

An interview with Erika Hayasaki, author of The Death Class: A Story About Life

Steve Helber / AP

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.

Were others in the class drawn to it for the same reasons you were?

Oh yeah. On the first day of class, we went around the room and everyone talked about why they were taking the class. Not everyone shares their most personal experience at that moment, but some do. One student, a big, football-player guy, talked about his brother who committed suicide, hung himself. He just broke down; that’s why he was in the class. And then the next student’s mother died of cancer when she was 12. Everybody had a story, and a lot of them brought that to class on the first day. They were grappling with death.

In your book, you focus on individual students’ stories—but instead of focusing on death, their stories seem to contain, at the core, a message about how to live.

In the journalism world, especially, we cover tragedy but don’t often revisit it. But here were people who went through incredible hardships, and they’re still here. What’s inspiring is that they’re doing really positive things with their lives. They’ve taken tragedies and turned them into something that gave their lives meaning. I think there’s a lesson in that. Every single person is going to go through hardship, and some of us will give up or wallow in it, but we can also take lessons from these characters and apply them to our own lives. If they can get through it, and even become stronger, then we have no excuse. They had resilience, and that’s a big part of the book.

In what ways, specifically, are students changing their lives?

Israel is a great example of that. He was a gang member who nearly killed someone. He got into college but hadn’t figured out what he was going to do. If you meet him today, after that class, his life is about helping other people, giving back. He volunteered at Hurricane Sandy recovery, pulling 12-hour shifts. He did that on his own—this is his life now. He found his purpose through the class, through Norma Bowe. He hadn’t explored or ever talked about these issues, about holding a gun to someone’s head. Or losing somebody he mentored because he told him to get out of the gang and the gang killed him. He hadn’t talked about these things. He was able to apply his life experience to helping other people.

What did the class do for you, personally?

It helped me see that there’s life after tragedy. Thinking about death in an intellectual way, incorporating medical science with philosophy and fieldwork, and exploring many different angles, helped me accept death as part of life. I think I wanted to control death. When it happens, how it happens, who it happens to. And you don’t have any control. That’s a big step in letting go. What do you have control over? Your own life, in the moment. Your relationships. It’s a really hard thing to tell people, and it sounded corny even to me, but the more you make death something that’s not this distant, spooky, horrific thing, but instead make it part of life, it changes your perspective. People will start to think that way when they’re older, or have a terminal illness, but why not think that way when you’re young? Why not realize it? I’m not going to say that I’m embracing death, that I’m not scared, or that I’m completely comfortable, but I definitely have a decreased level of anxiety and embraced it as a reality.

Do you think kids should start learning about death even earlier?

I do. They know what’s happening. They see what’s on TV. They know about Sandy Hook, about 9/11, about the Boston Marathon bombings. To not discuss it in an open way doesn’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Sex Ed is taught early on, so why don’t we teach kids about death?

In a recent piece for the Atlantic, you wrote about how death is having a “comeback.” What’s behind this?

There are “death cafés,” “death dinners,” a “death salon.” I went to a weekend-long event on death in L.A. that brought in various scholars and other people talking about death. But these things are happening with young people and baby boomers, and it’s clearly a reaction against how our society has traditionally treated death. Death has been so sanitized. We’re afraid to talk about it. That’s changed since the 1960s. Before then, you never had these discussions in the open. But now it’s changing even more. People want open, honest, discussions about it.

What is “death anxiety”?

Death anxiety is the fear of death, and there are different levels of it. Psychologists have developed scales to measure it, and they ask people how much they fear the thought of dying, or their loved ones’ dying, and measure it that way. A lot of the scholars I’ve talked to say that people who have more exposure to death, in a way that’s not the way I was exposed, just covering one death and going on to the next one, but being exposed by thinking about it, discussing it, writing about it, accepting it, had decreased levels of death anxiety. That’s obviously why this class is so great. It’s the chance to do that over a semester.

There was an interesting study examining how people’s death anxiety changed after watching the HBO show, (one of my favorites!), Six Feet Under, which featured a family that owned a funeral home.

Initially, death anxiety increased, but then it went down.

It seems like it was a good way for people to process ordinary death.

Exactly. I love that show too. It was clearly about death, but there was so much more to it. I wonder what the studies would show about people who watch those new shows on zombies! It might change things. That’s part of our cultural approach to death—only seeing the violence in the movies and on TV and in the news. Not seeing all the other parts of it. There was a great article in The Daily Beast on the home funeral movement. People who are taking care of the bodies of loved ones at home instead of giving them to a funeral director. If a person dies in the hospital and you give the body to a funeral director, you don’t see the in-between. You see them in the casket and then they’re gone. That’s the traditional way we do funerals. But home funerals are about families caring for the bodies themselves, dressing the bodies, washing the bodies, staying with the bodies for several days before seeing them off forever. That’s a totally different mentality. If you think about it, you can see why people who do that feel more at peace. They have the chance to say goodbye. And in our current society, you don’t often get that chance. It’s often done behind the scenes. Why shouldn’t we have access to that process? It’s often quite beautiful.