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.