Education: Mortal Fears

Courses in “death education" get mixed reviews

WHEN TARA BECKER began her junior year of high school, in Littleton, Colorado, in 1984, she was by her own description depressed, confused, and alienated from her parents. She was, however, instinctively drawn to her creative-writing teacher, a “mystical” young woman who claimed to have been married to a guru in India. Periodically, class discussions turned to the subject of death, Becker recalls in a video tape produced by the Eagle Forum, a conservative political-action group, which is circulated among parents’ groups around the country. “Basically, she was telling us that death was something natural, something normal that we were to look forward to,” Becker, a fluffy-haired teenager, says, leaning a little self-consciously over a Formica counter in her family’s well-scrubbed kitchen. “She told us that when we die we join the ‘Oversoul.’ She told us that the body was an illusion and that we could believe ourselves into any state of mind we wanted. I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not really here.’ ”

As a formal exercise, Becker’s teacher held a “suicide talking day,” during which students were asked to write an obituary and a suicide note, and to discuss how they wanted to look in their coffins. “I thought death was just escaping the body,” Becker says, in her flat Western twang. “I felt I wasn’t really here to begin with, so why not disappear?”

One evening soon afterward, Becker arrived home rambling half-coherently. “She was talking suicide continuously,” her mother told me recently. “She was threatening to go off and never come back. She said she had a plan to destroy herself with the car.” That evening Tara Becker collapsed. She spent two weeks in the hospital, diagnosed as suffering from severe depression. “It took six months for her to get back to normal,” her mother says. Tara has since married and become a fundamentalist Christian. Her teacher left the school in 1985, moving to Florida, Becker says, “to find her essence.”

A generation ago death was a subject even less likely than sex to be found in the curricula of American public schools. If death was acknowledged at all, it was usually discussed within the context of literary classics. In the past decade courses that treat death and dying far more explicitly have appeared in schools across the country. Thousands of schools are involved, according to groups that either oppose or support “death education.” However, the actual number isn’t known, both because death education is a relatively new phenomenon and because it is often presented as a part of more-traditional courses. Many schools—for example, the one that Tara Becker attended—have blended some of the philosophies and techniques of death education into health, social studies, literature, and home-economics courses. Others have introduced suicideprevention programs.

Formal death-education classes vary widely in form and content, from segments of a few days’ duration to fullsemester courses that systematically explore the physical process of death, students’ feelings about death and bereavement, the social rituals that surround death, the causes of suicide and its prevention, euthanasia, the right to die, the economics of funerals, and methods of interment and cremation.

According to Judith Stillion, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, and also the president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, “The increase in youth suicides is heightening awareness of the need for education in death and dying, while the rise of AIDS is telling teachers that death may strike the classroom at any time.”

Proponents of death education see it as long overdue. “The stakes are as big as they are in sex education but perhaps not so obvious,” says Austin kutscher, the president of the Foundation of Thanatology. “Most people spend the better part of their lives coping with losses, whether they are past, current, or only projected ones.”

“It used to be that everyone saw people grow old and die in front of them, and learned to cope with death as a normal part of growing up,” says Robert Stevenson, who since 1972 has taught a popular elective in death and dying at River Dell High School, in northern New Jersey. “But since the 1930s we have moved death out of the home and into funeral homes and hospitals. Increasingly, kids never see death. That underscores the natural tendency to deny the facts of death. If you feel that you will never have to deal with death, it can be devastating when it finally hits you.”

The PROLIFERATION of death-education classes is, in part, a legacy of the trend toward “relevance” that revolutionized American education after the 1960s. But it is also rooted in a widespread conviction among educators and healthcare professionals that most Americans’ feelings about death are deeply skewed. An article that appeared in the magazine The School Counselor in 1977 argued the case for death education this way:

An underlying, but seldom spoken, assumption of much of the deatheducation movement is that Americans handle death and dying poorly and that we ought to be doing better at it. As in the case of many other problems, many Americans believe that education can initiate change. Change is evident, and death education will play as important a part in changing attitudes toward death as sex education played in changing attitudes toward sex information and wider acceptance of various sexual practices.

This approach reflects a view of education in which the molding of a student’s attitudes may be as important as, or even take precedence over, the development of his mind. It implicitly expects teachers to serve as psychologists for the children in their classrooms. As a National Education Association report titled “Education for the 70’s” hopefully put it, “Schools will become clinics whose purpose is to provide individualized, psycho-social treatment for the student, and teachers must become psycho-social therapists.”

When it is sensitively taught, death education can be beneficial. “I saw that you can go through any kind of loss,” says Wendy Dunn, whose senior health class at a New Jersey high school included a segment on death and dying. “When my grandmother died last year I was able to help my mother go through it. She told me to go away and leave her alone, but I could say to her. ‘I know how you feel.’ ” Jo Ann Alessandro, who took a course called Life and Dying at her school on Long Island, says that she would now no longer ignore a friend who expressed thoughts of suicide but would talk to him seriously about his feelings. Robert Stevenson’s class helped Deborah Brodt make sense of the grief and helplessness she felt after a sudden succession of deaths. “My mom died, my boyfriend died, and a friend jumped off a bridge, all within a few months of each other,” Brodt says. “I can’t say the course saved my life, but it did enable me to accept my feelings.”

In most schools offering death education, however, it has been introduced without much discussion of its ultimate value or its potential effects on young people. The suicides of former deatheducation students in Missouri and Illinois, and the traumatic reactions of others, like Tara Becker, have generated increasing criticism of death education, the most strident of which comes from the political right. Many conservative critics argue that death education arrogates to itself the prerogatives of home and church, and protest that it usually fails to give equal time to the Christian tenet of “life everlasting.” Allan Carlson, a historian and the president of the conservative Rockford Institute, says that death education, like sex education, “has produced a moral civil war of words and institutions that pits one system that is primarily scientific and therapeutic against another that values revealed truth or inherited wisdom over the simply rational.” He adds, “It may be that on the far side of this national struggle we shall come out better. But I think we’ll come out worse.” In Oklahoma, conservative legislators unsuccessfully introduced a bill to ban death education altogether. Less ideological critics worry that in the hands of unskilled and overenthusiastic teachers, death education may in fact inspire more anxiety, depression, and fear than it reduces.

Margaret Bocek, who, during her tenure, from 1982 to 1986, on the school board in Arlington County, Virginia, received numerous complaints from parents about death-education classes, says, “Much of death education is psychological manipulation. It is a form of value modification that is being practiced on children by people who presume that attitudes need to be changed. Are we solving anything with this? Or are we only creating new problems?”

Some critics, of course, speak from hidden biases or exaggerate what they perceive as the dangers. But the canopy of death education clearly shelters a jungle of idiosyncratic and sometimes highly questionable practices. Tom Tancredo, the Denver regional director of the U.S. Department of Education, says, “A lot of stuff we hear raises the hair on my head, and I ask myself what in the world is going on out there at a time when we can’t even deal with the issue of basic education.”

Margaret Bocek has amassed a collection of teaching materials that include the study of corpse disposal and body decomposition for grammar school students, and questionnaires that require pupils to list ten ways of dying, including violent death, in order of “most to least preferred.” First-graders in one Florida school district were taught to make model coffins from shoeboxes. Elsewhere students are said to have been asked to sit in coffins as a way of confronting the fear of death, and have been taught the metric system by measuring themselves for caskets. Textbooks for death-education classes are sometimes startlingly morbid. “Death: A Part of Life,” a widely used teachers’ manual published by the University of Denver, concludes with an assignment to write a “Eulogy for Mankind” based on the following premises:

It is the year 1994. The problems humankind faced in the 1970s have grown worse. Mass starvation is part of the horrible existence of threequarters of the world’s population. Energy sources such as oil and gas are almost gone. People have changed. Disease has changed them. Hope has gone from most people. Nuclear confrontation has occurred a number of times in the Middle East. The fate of humankind is questionable; in fact humans as you once knew them are for all purposes dead.

Presumably to get students thinking about the meaning of life, they are commmonly asked to write their own obituaries and wills, and occasionally their own suicide notes. A tenth-grade lesson plan from Charlotte, North Carolina, tells students to write their epitaphs on construction paper cut in the shape of a tombstone and to plan their own funerals, adding that students should “try to include all the details and wishes no matter how bizarre” they are advised to specify pallbearers, flowers, music, means of body disposal, atmosphere, and budget. High school students in suburban Maryland were asked to report a suicide to the next of kin. Here is a sample:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cory:

I wrote this letter to inform you about your son Richard. Richard had been acting different the past few days. Yesterday I came home from work and found him laying on the floor face down. I checked his pulse but there wasn’t any. I went in to the bathroom and I found the sleeping pills open and half gone. I’m very sorry to say your son has past away.

In many schools visits to funeral homes and crematoria are standard fare. Near Denver a sixth-grade class was shown an actual embalming and allowed to touch an undraped corpse. In Colorado Springs a death-education class was held in a cemetery, to provide an “appropriate atmosphere” for the discussion of bereavement.

Some death-education curricula specifically encourage teachers to probe and mold children’s emotions. One assignment in “Death: A Part of Life,” for instance, asks students to check off everything they are afraid of from a list of ninety-four items, ranging from “father,”“sharp objects,” and “dead people,” to “losing control” and “traveling through tunnels.— Students are then expected to discuss their fears with their teachers and classmates. A number of other lesson plans recommend techniques that closely resemble hypnosis. A “simulation mind game” developed at the University of Kentucky and suggested for use in health classes calls for students to go through a series of physical-relaxation exercises in a dim, candlelit room. Then the teacher intones,

Today, you are going to experience death, not as a terrifying end but as a natural part of life, a transition stage. On my command you will experience death and at that moment you will see yourself rise to the ceiling of this room and look down upon your own lifeless form. You will die now. As you look upon your body you are not frightened, just feeling a little awkward in your new state of being. You are interested as people try to revive you, but not upset. You can see loved ones who hear the news of your death and mourn. Try to reassure them that you are content in your new state.

BECAUSE NO generally accepted standards of evaluation have been developed for death education, no one can reliably gauge the effect that “mind games” and death-focused exercises may have on psychologically fragile young people, on those who have recently experienced a parent’s or a friend’s death, or on those who are involved with drugs. Robert Stevenson, who holds a Ed.D. and also a master’s degree in counseling, is skeptical about the value of the “game” described above. “That type of simulated death experience should be given to terminally ill patients only, at their own request,” he says. “To use it with a random group of kids without knowing what effect it may have on them is irresponsible, at the very least. In high school it’s absolutely not right.” Stevenson emphasizes that in his fifteen years of teaching about death and dying, only four students have had to leave class because they found it too stressful, and he knows of only one former student who attempted suicide, some years after her graduation; more than twenty students had attempted suicide before taking his course. Stevenson warns, nevertheless, that to reduce fears about death may be unhealthy. “We just don’t know,” he says. “A certain amount of fear is healthy, because it eliminates risk-taking.”

“You’re playing Russian roulette if you say that maybe a few students can’t handle the subject, while most can,” says a mother in Chicago whose son committed suicide in 1985, a little more than a year after he had had a segment on death in his high school health class. “I don’t want to point a finger at anyone. There was no one reason for what happened to my son. But that class could have contributed to his state of mind.”

Although some death-education classes, like Robert Stevenson’s, are highly regarded by experts in thanatology, death-education teachers are not required to have any standard credentials, and for the most part they are not required to follow any standard curriculum. “Anyone with a teacher’s license can walk in off the street and start teaching death ed.,” Stevenson says. “Some people teach these courses as their own form of self-therapy.” Such academic preparation for teachers of death education as exists seems perilously limited.

“Only a fraction of the people teaching death education in the public schools have adequate training in the field,” says Judith Stillion, of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. “Anyone teaching death education needs at least three qualifications: a teacher must have training in handling his own feelings about death and dying and must understand the meaning that death gives to life. He must also be familiar with the professional literature in the field, and be able to integrate his knowledge of death and dying with the developmental level of the children he is teaching. That ability, unfortunately, does not come naturally.”

Only about a hundred people have passed through the four-year-old certification program of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, and of those only a handful have been schoolteachers; the rest are counselors in private practice or university instructors. “We have a lot of dabblers,” Stillion admits. “Some people sit in on a twoweekend workshop in death education and then go home and teach the same thing to their ten-year-old students, without understanding that ten-yearolds and adults are at different developmental stages.”

Serious thanatologists believe that if death education is to become a truly meaningful part of school curricula, it must be standardized and professionalized. “It shouldn’t be the whim of one individual,” says Austin Kutscher, of the Foundation of Thanatology. Kutscher believes that no school should introduce death education until it has carefully planned the course with the help of sociologists, psychologists, or counselors and until the course has won the approval of the school’s parent-teacher association.

Proponents of death education maintain that death is a more abstract presence for today’s young people than it has been for previous generations. By the age of fifteen, some media experts say, the average American has seen 13,000 murders on television and has been exposed to an endless stream of war, famine, and holocaust in the daily news. At the same time, he has been isolated from the actuality of death, a circumstance that allegedly breeds an unhealthy habit of denial. Thanatologists assert that the AIDS epidemic will force more and more schools to acknowledge the problems of death. The Youth Suicide National Center estimates that up to 60 percent of teenagers have at least thought of suicide. The rate of youth suicide has, moreover, tripled since the late 1950s, and very few teenagers seem not to have at least heard of a contemporary who has committed suicide. By the age of eighteen, one in twenty students has had to cope with the death of a parent and nearly half with the loss of a parent through divorce or separation. “People on the inside of a school have to be able to explain what has happened in the outside world,” Kutscher says. “Grief has to be dealt with.”

In practice, death education has been fraught with ambiguity and risk. Death education aspires to create a stronger, more autonomous, less fearful person. It seems to presume, however, that young people (and the adults they will become) are incapable of dealing successfully with death on their own and require professional attention as a matter of course. In the classroom, death education seems often to consist in a poppsychology approach to life and death which avoids a serious examination of its own effects. Ultimately, it begs some of the important questions that it claims to answer. “Should death be feared?” Kutscher asks. “Is the emotional security of not fearing death a goal worthy enough to rate taking certain calculated risks? Is preventing a few suicides by teaching that death ought to be feared as important as teaching a whole generation not to be afraid of death?”

—Fergus M. Bordewich